President Petraeus?

Spotting Gen. David Petraeus in a photo chatting up a little old lady shouldn’t make one recoil with odd feelings of discomfort.

Except that the little old lady is none other than the indomitable 87-year-old Gertrude Himmelfarb, mother of Bill Kristol (who is at Petraeus’ elbow) and wife of the late Irving Kristol, godfather of neoconservatism. The photo was taken on May 6, the night Petraeus spoke at the Washington neoconservative confab – the annual American Enterprise Institute gala – as a recipient of the 2010 Irving Kristol Award.

The general’s in Washington, and we’re not sure he wants to leave.

If “The Washington Scene” photo gallery of attendees doesn’t give you a case of acid reflux, his speech will. Especially the part where he gives AEI luminaries Kimberly and Frederick Kagan – or “Team Kagan” – primary credit for the Iraq Surge (which is kind of sad for retired Gen. Jack Keane, a former fellow Army officer often referred to as Petraeus’ mentor, who was much more involved in the original AEI “surge” blueprint than Fred’s wife Kimberly was).


“In the fall of 2006, AEI scholars helped develop the concept for what came to be known as ‘the surge.’ Fred and Kim Kagan and their team, which included retired General Jack Keane, prepared a report that made the case for additional troops in Iraq. As all here know, it became one of those rare think-tank products that had a truly strategic impact.”

What we have here is a four-star general, grinning in that aw-shucks way under the weight of his medals and epaulettes, politicking and fiercely working a crowd on multiple levels, each more audacious than the other.

First, as commander of U.S. Central Command, he is managing his image as the Iraq War’s savior and maintaining the illusion that the so-called Surge saved Iraq and preserved our pride as a nation. Then, like a well-dressed traveling salesman, he’s selling war – long-term military intervention in the GWOT AOR (that’s the Global War on Terror Area of Operations, which is, of course, global). And, as many have speculated of late, he is selling himself – as a potential Republican candidate for commander in chief.

The Christian Science Monitor weighed in on his AEI appearance:

“With former Vice President Dick Cheney and members of the Bush-era glitterati known as the neocons looking on, Petraeus accepted AEI’s annual Irving Kristol Award, named after the giant of neoconservatism – a conservative ideology with roots in American liberal thinking that eschews realist foreign policy in favor of an activist and interventionist approach to the world. …

“The late Mr. Kristol’s son, Bill Kristol, noted in a tribute to the award’s three decades of honorees that none has ever gone on to become president. He then added to applause and laughter, ‘Perhaps this curious and glaring omission will be rectified.’

“Rather than simply letting that moment pass, Petraeus said upon taking the podium that in mulling over the theme for his speech, ‘It never crossed my mind, Bill, to talk about what you were suggesting.’

“The line was delivered with a smile.”

The guy may have an ego as big as Tajikistan, but he’s no fool. Before him sat the shining, open faces of some of the most powerful political donors in the country. That those faces included Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, and Richard Perle – the very people responsible for the worst war policy in modern American history – was inconsequential. Without that war policy, Petraeus wouldn’t be where he is right now – “King David” sitting on the throne of a trillion-dollar enterprise. And he probably won’t become the Republican nominee without some heavy lifting from the star-maker machinery at AEI, which would enjoy nothing more than to get its own pocket general into the White House.

This mutually beneficial relationship is already off to a great start. Thanks to “Team Kagan,” AEI’s Bill Kristol and Charles Krauthammer, and a battery of sycophantic pundits and mainstream journalists, Petraeus’ lack of authentic exceptionalism has been transformed into an unshakable “warrior-scholar” persona with his own “legacy” – the Petraeus Doctrine, an updating of old counterinsurgency practices of questionable long-term efficacy, which numerous subordinates and civilian devotees, not just the general, had a hand in engineering.

Never mind that the “success” of the doctrine as played out by the Iraq Surge was derived mostly from the super-concentrated use of superior firepower and the bribing of 90,000 Sunni insurgents to stop fighting U.S. forces (and never mind that the effects of that doctrine are unraveling in Iraq at this very moment). This effective PR strategy on Petraeus’ behalf glosses over all that and succeeds in getting –  for now – what both the general and his neoconservative admirers want: sustained public patience for a Long War against “terror” that reflects U.S. military predominance in U.S. foreign policy, extending as a result to a growing deference to the military and its leaders in American domestic politics, too.

Given these lofty expectations, it’s no surprise he’s been stateside, more often in his political AOR than his CENTCOM one. Like any good pol, Petraeus knows he must win the hearts and minds of the wider Washington establishment, which is all too open to his advances. Among the Beltway Bandits we call the defense contracting industry, the warhawks in Congress, and the mushy Democratic center – so responsive to Petraeus’ righteous COIN formula, with its “population-centric” and “whole of government” themes – the court of Washington is just swooning over King David.

Take his April 13 visit to the Wilson Center for International Scholars, a respectable galaxy of conventional establishment thinkers. His visit was so exciting that pundit-celebrities like Sam Donaldson and congressional committee chairs like Rep. Jane Harmon (D-Calif.) condescended to sit in the audience, sucking up time by throwing out outrageous softballs during the obligatory Q&A and allowing the pampered Petraeus to avoid any controversy that might diminish the myth or dull his star.

So he gets away with saying stuff like this: “Now, is there political drama in Iraq right now? Oh, absolutely. And again, we’ve occasionally talked about this as being Iraqracy, not democracy, and it is.”

Or this:

“The truth is, though, that I used to use the phrase that when you conduct an endeavor like Iraq or Afghanistan – when you launch an operation like that – you have to recognize that there’s a half-life. And there’s a half-life of how long it is that they really are happy to see you.

“And they were happy to see us in Iraq. Again, I – again – and it didn’t matter. Shia, Sunni, Kurds were all delighted to have us there. No one loved Saddam, and seeing him gone was great.

“But then what you do, how you act, how you carry out your mission has a great deal to do with how long that half-life lasts.

“And there will be, by the way, individual half-lives; different half-lives in different parts of the country, depending on how the individual units and leaders and all the rest of that carry out their tasks.

“You can actually put time back on the half-life. I would argue that that half-life had run out in certain areas of the country – long since, actually, when we launched the surge –and that we were able to actually get back to the point where the Iraqis were happy to have us because we now helped them get rid of al-Qaeda. …

“By the way, they will never truly applaud. No one, no country, I don’t think, ever truly welcomes foreign forces on their soil. Although, again, over time there are factors that can mitigate that. The strategic agreement reached with Iraq was of enormous importance because it recognized their sovereignty….”

Right – the Iraqis were so satisfied with the status of forces agreement that kept tens of thousands of U.S. forces in their country that Prime Minister Maliki is still afraid to put the issue to a nationwide referendum.

But let’s put Petraeus’ confusing half-life metaphors and elastic conception of Iraqi happiness aside for a moment. His speeches tend to concentrate on the past more than they do on current events, but when he does talk about military strategy moving forward it is in gratingly broad strokes, strange euphemisms, boring PowerPoints, and sleight-of-hand. Just like a politician, his tone is indulgent, like he’s always talking to a classroom full of national security novices. Yet, caught up in his aura and typical Washington etiquette, no one demands more. In fact, his audience is ready to close ranks when someone does. Like this man, whose question was ignored completely during the Wilson Center love-in (I apologize for what appears to be a poor transcription [.pdf] of the exchange, but I think the spirit of it comes through):

Question: “My name Amin Mahmoud [phonetic]. I’m with the Alliance of Egyptian-Americans.

“You mentioned moderate states, mean like Egyptian probably include that. And in my opinion, they are a dictator countries, and supporting dictators, plus supporting Israel. Continue the same policy of 60 years, supporting only government. And you increase extremist in these countries. […]”

Petraeus: “First of all, I’m not sure I completely understand it. But if you’re asking about our policy toward the political process in Egypt or something like that, I will defer that to the – to our policymakers and try to stay in the military lane, if I could…”


Question: “Of course. But you [inaudible] extremist, and supporting dictators and support Israeli policy in the area will increase that. That’s related to you…”


Moderator: “There’s a lady who was about ready to ask a question. And then [inaudible] have your concluding question.”

There are plenty of critics who say that Petraeus is neither a true warrior nor a scholar. Some call him “King,” but his calculating career trajectory, minimal direct combat experience, and political appetite suggest he is a courtier before anything else. Boston University professor and ace COIN critic Andrew Bacevich wrote a piece in The American Conservative in 2007 called “Sycophant Savior,” describing Petraeus as a political general of the “worst kind,” in that during the Surge, the politics of pleasing the court of Washington and advancing his own career became tantamount to executing and winning the war.

“George Washington, U.S. Grant, and Dwight D. Eisenhower were all “political generals” in the very best sense of the term. Their claims to immortality rest not on their battlefield exploits – Washington actually won few battles, and Grant achieved his victories through brute force rather than finesse, while Ike hardly qualifies as a field commander at all – but on the skill they demonstrated in translating military power into political advantage. Each of these three genuinely great soldiers possessed a sophisticated appreciation for war’s political dimension.

“David Petraeus is a political general. Yet in presenting his recent assessment of the Iraq War and in describing the ‘way forward,’ Petraeus demonstrated that he is a political general of the worst kind – one who indulges in the politics of accommodation that is Washington’s bread and butter but has thereby deferred a far more urgent political imperative, namely, bringing our military policies into harmony with our political purposes.”

According to Bacevich, if Petraeus had really believed the Surge, i.e., COIN, was working in 2007, the general would have asked for more troops, demanding that Congress fish or cut bait when it came to the nation’s investment in the GWOT. But he didn’t, knowing full well the political ramifications of angering the Joint Chiefs, the White House, and in Congress, the antiwar Democrats and the Republicans, who clearly wanted war off the table ahead of the 2008 elections.

“Yet the anger and embarrassment would have been salutary. A great political general doesn’t tell his masters what they want to hear. He tells them what they need to hear, thereby nudging them to make decisions that must be made if the nation’s interests are to be served. In this instance, Petraeus provided cover for them to evade their responsibilities.

Petraeus has done nothing but sharpen this unflattering image in the intervening years, particularly since he was promoted to CENTCOM chief, effectively putting subordinates in charge of the war fighting – Gen. Raymond Odierno in dealing with the evolving mess in Iraq, and Gen. Stanley McChrystal overseeing the whack-a-mole quagmire in Afghanistan – while he hustles and flows through the speakers’ circuit back home.

Lucky for him, the mainstream media appears too bedazzled to even examine whether he is baldly using his position to game out a future political run. Even reliable war critics like George Will appear under a spell. In a recent column, Will wrote of Petraeus: “His voracious appetite for knowing things is the leitmotif of his career.” If this is the best the often withering Will can muster, then Petraeus needn’t worry about media scrutiny, at least not yet.

The fact he remains a blank slate in terms of where he stands on everything that is not defense-related will quickly become an issue if decides to throw his helmet in the ring. That he has reportedly described himself as a “Rockefeller Republican” and named egomaniac Rudy Giuliani and corporate cutthroat Jack Welch as leaders who inspire him suggests that when one peels back the uniform, there may be nothing but another ambitious, mediocre politician waiting inside.

But if Petraeus is really courting the presidency as assiduously as he has cultivated the vacuous Washington elite, it may be that this war – the victory of which has remained overly redefined and elusive for almost a decade – will be his ultimate Achilles heel. Gen. Dwight Eisenhower at least had the victory of World War II when he became the nation’s 34th president. Invoking the legacies of great generals who became presidents, as Petraeus often does, won’t get him into the pantheon any sooner.

“Our first president [George Washington] once captured very eloquently the feelings of those who serve our nation: ‘I was summoned by my country,’ he said, ‘whose voice I can never hear but with veneration and love,’” said Petraeus during his AEI speech.

Something besides his own narcissism may indeed be summoning the four-star to Washington – though it isn’t clear that a groundswell from the American people has anything to do with it. But his recent pandering to AEI and the lip-smacking response from Kristol & Co. should make anyone who still maintains a thread of common sense and an institutional memory very concerned.

Author: Kelley B. Vlahos

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer, is a longtime political reporter for and a contributing editor at The American Conservative. She is also a Washington correspondent for Homeland Security Today magazine. Her Twitter account is @KelleyBVlahos.