David Petraeus Rides Again

Imagine a military historian visiting here from five hundred years into the future.

What could he possibly think of an Army general who is endlessly feted and promoted while the war he has been most closely associated with, not to mention in command of, chokes and wheezes along like an asthmatic, by many accounts a foregone failure?

Not to mention that this particular general’s closest brush with major “victory” was holding off a rag-tag insurgency long enough to save “face” for the Army and his political handlers back home. Despite that, whenever he leaves his command for another top slot in the war machine, the establishment applauds as though the shift presages a way out instead of a mere shifting of deck chairs on a clearly sinking ship.

Though he has never seen combat, his power points seemingly yield ancient magic code, and his sycophants among politicians, media scribes and so called “think tanks” craft elaborate panegyrics in his name, hagiographies and calls for a fifth star, presumably for leaving behind “fragile and reversible” conditions on the ground in every command before leaving for another every year or so.

(Agence France Presse/Saul Loeb)

What else could a distant traveler from another time think, other than the American national security elite circa 2007 to 2011 had fallen into some sort of mass induced swoon—over one man who, for all of his medals, ribbons and stars, did not win a war, but worse, encouraged and manipulated two Presidents of the United States to pour more blood, more treasure into it until everyone was feeling stupid and more than a little resentful about getting involved in the first place.

So it all might seem from a distance. But as rumors became official news last week, that Gen. David Petraeus would be shifted from his post as Commander of U.S Forces in Afghanistan to Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, a “lateral” move for the four-star we are told, but a prestigious and powerful one to the President’s cabinet nonetheless, Washington’s national security establishment and writers across the spectrum rushed to explain the unusual appointment in the most reasonable, rational terms.

President Obama, who appears to be the swooner-in-chief, set the tone with the appointment:

“I’m also very pleased that [Leon Panetta’s] work at the CIA will be carried on by one of our leading strategic thinkers and one of the finest military officers of our time, General David Petraeus,” Obama said yesterday. …

“In short, just as General Petraeus changed the way that our military fights and wins wars in the 21st century, I have no doubt that Director Petraeus will guide our intelligence professionals as they continue to adapt and innovate in an ever changing world,” Obama said.

Simply put, as The New York Times and others rightly noted, the appointment further hardens the long post-9/11 militarization of the spy agency, which has been transformed under the GWOT (Global War on Terror) into a hybrid paramilitary organization that works so closely with military intelligence and Special Operations, not to mention the continued drone attack campaigns in Pakistan and elsewhere, that some have observed it is hard to tell where one department ends and the other begins. Petraeus’ move to the CIA will bring the agency further into the military fold, while continuing the growing emphasis on targeted assassination and bombing wherever the U.S war machine wants to be.

“Some members of Congress have complained that this new way of war allows for scant debate about the scope and scale of military operations. In fact, the American spy and military agencies operate in such secrecy now that it is often hard to come by specific information about the American role in major missions in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and now Libya and Yemen,” wrote Mark Mazzetti and Eric Schmitt on Friday.

Yet no one expects this to thwart “King David’s” nomination, especially when the general’s “close relationship” with the CIA can be explained as a virtue. Other than his reported penchant for drone warfare—it’s kinetic, man!—or his said appreciation of HUMINT (human intelligence) on the battlefield, he brings no prior practical experience in espionage or defense intelligence analysis, but somehow his appointment to the CIA makes sense, to almost everyone in Washington.

“The choice of General Petraeus, with his broad bipartisan support, will provide Mr. Obama the opportunity to avoid what could have been a protracted congressional battle over who will lead the C.I.A. for the balance of his term,” wrote NYT’s political columnist Michael Shear, noting that Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, reliable mouthpiece for the war machine, had called Petraeus “a national treasure” and said he was an “inspired choice” on Wednesday, while Democrat Rep. Norm Dicks of Washington, gushed, “anything Petraeus does, he’ll do a good job at.”

Andrew Exum, a fellow at the heavily wired-in Center for a New American Security, who has served as both an adviser to Petraeus and Gen. Stanley McChrystal, weakly offered to The Washington Post, “I think in a lot of ways Gen. Petraeus is the right guy for the agency given the way in which the operational side of the house has really increased” since the Sept. 11 attacks.

“He has a unique understanding of the important role of the CIA—what they do, how they do it,” Frances Townsend, former homeland security adviser to President George W. Bush, told CNN. “I think he’s got both a good understanding of how they work and their value to the military mission.” No doubt the bin Laden search (CIA) and kill (military) operation will be used often to bolster this line of reasoning from supporters during the confirmation.

Ken Pollack, a quintessential Beltway national security insider perched at the Brookings Institution, put the general’s appointment in the starkest patriotic terms. “Petraeus, who has been in the military all his life, has also been in the service of the United States of America all of his life,” he told Laura Rozen at The Envoy. “David Petraeus still believes he has something to offer his country… I think that the CIA is going to be thrilled to have him. … It’s actually what CIA needs right now.”

Of course, the returned focus on Petraeus the man –brilliant and stalwart—allowed for the hackneyed testimonials. As if anyone had actually mentioned his prostate cancer, reportedly in remission, or his determination to see Afghanistan through, these straw men nevertheless were struck down in multiple interviews.

“Anyone who thinks Gen. Petraeus is exhausted hasn’t run with him at six thousand feet altitude here or gone on a battlefield circulation with him lately!” an unnamed military officer told Rozen by e-mail. “And I can tell you that Gen. Petraeus is not eager to leave Afghanistan; as a matter of fact, it’s well known that he pledged to see this through another fighting season if that was necessary.”

Republican political operative Cameron Lynch, who wondered about Obama’s political motives for giving Petraeus the job, still used the opportunity to remind us why we love Petraeus so much:

Petraeus is an impressive figure who many thought could be the next Dwight Eisenhower. He is a career military man with impeccable service credentials who has garnered the respect of almost every legislator and member of the administration, and who just happens to be a Princeton Ph.D. to boot. Generally credited with turning around the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, Petraeus is a soldier first and foremost, who respects the wishes of his commanding officer—in this case, President Obama.

“This is good for everybody involved. It’s good for Obama and it’s good for Petraeus,” Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Texas, told Reuters. “Petraeus is the leading military officer of his generation but it was not clear where he would go after Afghanistan.”

After Afghanistan? As though the war were already over.

Others suggest the CIA is in need of the patented Petraeus course correction.

From Kimberly Dozier and Adam Goldman at The Washington Post:

Petraeus already has a deep understanding of what he perceives to be the spy agency’s weaknesses and strengths, as a commander who has drawn on CIA information to fight the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. As a military man who values discipline and honesty, he has a reputation of holding people accountable who serve under his command.

“He doesn’t suffer fools,” said Peter Mansoor, former executive officer to Petraeus in Iraq. …

Petraeus, the most famous general of his generation, might just have the clout to improve the CIA, making it a more effective and efficient spy agency and one where accountability doesn’t roll downhill.

The four-star general with two wars under his belt has ended the careers of senior commanders for civilian casualties he believes could have been avoided, or simply dismissed those on his staff who weren’t pulling their weight.

That Petraeus “ended the careers of senior commanders” doesn’t seem to be common knowledge—perhaps as such, it should have been more widely disseminated, lest he always be known as the general who, rather than take full blame for casualties resulting from errant NATO strikes, blamed Afghan parents for burning their own children.

Make no mistake, Obama’s pick for the CIA raised eyebrows among more than a few seasoned analysts, particularly over the timing: Obama is supposed to be announcing some level of a force drawdown from Afghanistan soon, and word is there is a “looming battle” between the military and White House over how big it will be. Petraeus, whose most recent assessment of the war has been tentatively positive at best—progress against the Taliban after nearly ten years is still “fragile and reversible”—would appear to be leaving when the military needed his strong arm and huckster smile the most.

But never disregard the establishment’s ability to rationalize, and then move on. “Petraeus has a vested interest in achieving acceptable success in Afghanistan, and no one is more aware than he that the 2014 drawdown date looms. Short of becoming Joint Chiefs chairman, the CIA post gives him the best chance to affect the Afghan outcome: prodding the Pakistanis, and digging deeper into the prospects for a negotiated peace,” wrote Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Trudy Rubin.

Plus, there were White House surrogates like Bruce Riedel, former CIA analyst and “counterterrorism adviser to several former presidents” with a ready and timely quote for all the major media, making the nomination as close to a “well, duh” as he could get without going overboard.

“The management structure and good old boy networks are going to be a little upset, but I don’t see that as a bad thing,” says Riedel, a Daily Beast contributor. “Petraeus brings some very unique insights and skills to this job, which makes him a quite exceptional choice.”

That it doesn’t dawn on anyone except for the most stalwart war critics to ask whether Petraeus even deserves these demanding and prestigious posts is the real horror here. Petraeus has been particularly brilliant at “turning around” skeptical members of congress on the trajectory of Iraq, and now Afghanistan, but his “turning around” of the wars—especially as chief crusader and promoter of modern COIN (counterinsurgency)—should be a matter of serious debate (has anyone even checked in with Iraq lately?). But it’s not.

Instead, “victory” is redefined with Newspeak by the message-framers among the national security elite, and let’s face it, political correctness is on the general’s side.

That is why it is particularly frustrating when someone like Vietnam veteran and former Assistant Secretary of Defense Bing West, who wrote an entire book about the failure of COIN in Afghanistan, responds to Petraeus’ nomination like every other dull acolyte:

The new nominees for secretary of defense and director of the CIA are excellent, non-political choices. General Petraeus has served our country for six years in hard top slots. Now he has again answered the call to duty. The operational side on the CIA will, of course, find him a pleasure to work with; the analytical side will be severely challenged—for the better. Petraeus will bring a commander’s eye to intelligence products. This will force the analysts to be more focused upon practicalities, and to better anticipate what is asked of them.

First of all, why do the analysts have to be “severely challenged,” when it is they who offered the more sober and practical—and by all accounts, correct—assessments on Afghanistan and Pakistan, particularly in two (largely ignored) National Intelligence Estimates (NIE) last fall—while Petraeus has consistently engaged us for years in the same elaborate mummery in order to “sell” the Long War?

So, Mr. West, as former CIA analyst Ray McGovern would so succinctly ask, “Are we to expect that once Petraeus takes the helm at CIA, the career analysts will still be able to call the war in Afghanistan a fool’s errand? If the new CIA director insists on seeing progress—however ‘fragile and reversible’—will vulnerable analysts risk his wrath by contradicting him?”

But it is West’s willingness to ignore Petraeus’ culpability in the fiasco of COIN that is most curious. In a February Small Wars Journal interview, West makes several charges against COIN, which was rolled out in Afghanistan in 2009 by the general’s compatriot, Gen. McChrystal, and heavily promoted by a smug pack of “warrior-intellectuals” otherwise known as the “Ph.D. Posse.”

“New COIN,” West dismissively declares, “remains an unproven theory” and “a “franchise business.”

Since Petraeus is most closely associated with that franchise (Petraeus himself spent much of 2009 selling it), and only became less wed to it after McChrystal was fired in 2010 and people like West throughout the military began to complain that their “hands were tied” against the Taliban, one would think he would—should—be the first to answer for it. But he won’t. Instead, he gets a cabinet position.

But what does this all mean to the rest of us? Well, as more astute critics have predicted and only a traveler from the future could really know, it likely means more drones, more war, and a dramatically, yet slowly sinking ship on which Gen. Petraeus is merely a highly decorated, ever-smiling, deck chair.

But at least, for now, he rides on.


This is my 101st column since I began writing for Antiwar.com in April 2009. I’d like to thank Eric, Phil, Angela, Matt, Jeremy, Justin, Wendy, Scott, Jason and the rest of the staff for their enthusiasm and support, but more importantly, thank you for reading and for commenting every week. I’m proud to be a part of such an intensely dedicated group, and very much look forward to another 101!

Author: Kelley B. Vlahos

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