Surge Finally Getting a Second Look?

If he were to pat you on the back, you would list it on your resume.

When in Rome, they do as he does.

He is the life of parties he has never attended

Sharks have a week dedicated to him.

He is the most interesting man in the world.

Just a few lines from the practically classic, always droll Dos Equis beer commercials, known for their bearded, dashing, and indomitable spokesperson, who is salt and peppered with just the right age, charm, and testosterone that “the pheromones he secretes effect people miles away … in a slight, but measurable way.”

On the other hand, if you are thinking that the media’s treatment of Gen. Davis Petraeus, now CIA Director Petraeus, has reached comparable levels of farce and fancy, you are not alone.

The most famous man in the U.S. Army left the military on Wednesday.

Gen. David Petraeus retired from the Army after 37 years in uniform. A couple of hundred people gathered on a sun-splashed day at Fort Myer, Va., just across the Potomac River from Washington, to pay tribute to the general. And like most of his career, the ceremony was well-scripted.

A half-hour before the ceremony started, a man about Petraeus’ height and build — with a chest full of medals and ribbons — walked to the podium and tapped the microphone. From the place where the journalists were gathered, the officer’s identify wasn’t clear.

I whispered to my colleagues in the press corps, “Is that Gen. Petraeus?”

“Couldn’t be,” they responded. “Four-star generals don’t do their own mic checks.”

Rachel Martin, who scripted this National Public Radio story on Aug. 31, was part of the media scrum that attended Petraeus’ retirement from the military late last month. The ceremony was the latest in many public press events over the years, including congressional hearings on the wars, confirmations, and each change in his command. And every one was perfectly contrived to elicit elaborate panegyrics to the larger-than-life Petraeus, who has managed to spin the success of one war in Iraq and have a questionable effect on another in Afghanistan but is nonetheless compared to Dwight D. Eisenhower, Ulysses S. Grant, and Michael Jordan.

From Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on Aug. 31:

“You’ve run the race well, swifter and surer than the rest, and you now stand among the giants not just in our time but of all time, joining the likes of Grant and Pershing and Marshall and Eisenhower as one of the great battle captains of American history,” Mullen said to Petraeus. “You’ve expanded our view of the possible, inspiring our military on to historic achievements during some of the most trying times America has ever known. And today you depart our ranks with the sincere thanks of a grateful nation.”

The first in what has become a growing pantheon of “warrior-scholars,” Petraeus has allowed himself to be mythologized — he even encouraged it, many say, by surrounding himself always with capable hagiographers like Kimberly Kagan and Thomas Ricks, and a slavish press gaggle — to the point where the papers of record never fail to credit him for “ending sectarian violence” and “destroying al-Qaeda in Iraq” through the so-called Surge in 2007.

Petraeus is, as the jelling conventional history suggests, the powerful gray matter behind both the return and the modern upgrade to counterinsurgency operations on the battlefield, first by publishing the much ballyhooed counterinsurgency field manual (FM 3-24) in 2006 and then successfully integrating these so-called COIN tenets into the Surge in Iraq.

Here’s The Washington Post on Petraeus’ retirement two weeks ago:

No soldier has had a greater impact on the way the military has fought over the past five years than Petraeus, who was a driving force behind the military’s embrace of a counterinsurgency doctrine that elevated the importance of protecting terrified locals from insurgent attacks and building local governance and infrastructure….

Petraeus also pressed his troops to experiment and take risks in working with former enemies and building indigenous security forces whose loyalty initially seemed questionable. These gambles paid especially high dividends in Iraq, which was convulsed by sectarian violence and in the grip of a bloody insurgency when Petraeus assumed command in 2007.

You don’t have to be Nir Rosen to see this is a whitewash, or at the very least, the hardening, abridged version of our 21st-century war canon. There would be no “convulsing sectarian violence” nor the plague of al-Qaeda in Iraq if the U.S. hadn’t invaded in the first place. The “risks” his troops took in “working with former enemies” were in essence paying Sunni fighters off and hoping they wouldn’t run off with the guns (later, the U.S. turned over all the iris scans, fingerprints, and dossiers on our Sunni “sons” to the Shia government, which guaranteed their subjugation — and no doubt detention and torture — for the rest of the war).

Not only that, but there are tens of thousands of dead Iraqi civilians, a generation of orphans and widows, and millions still displaced who couldn’t care less that the military “found COIN” in 2007. They are never acknowledged in this crystallizing narrative. Nor is the fact that security is still extremely fragile, and no one really knows whether the Iraqi military can keep it together when U.S. forces supposedly withdraw at the end of the year. This, too, is missing from the glowing testimonials.

Consider this one, from Deputy Defense Secretary William J. Lynn III, as reported by American Forces Press Services:

Petraeus was instrumental in developing the counterinsurgency strategy and putting it into practice in Iraq and Afghanistan. That strategy is built “around the adaptability and ingenuity of the 9/11 generation,” Lynn said. “That strategy enabled the world’s most remarkable military to wage a new kind of war.

“[Iraq and Afghanistan] have tested the resilience and agility of our institutional military, and they have tested our nation’s resolve. But by acting on his belief that the most powerful weapon and most powerful tool any soldier carries is not his weapon but his mind, General Petraeus has redefined how America fought those wars.”

Petraeus’ strategies and tactics worked, Lynn said, delivering Iraq from the clutches of sectarian violence, and giving the people of Afghanistan a fighting chance.

Later, when The Washington Post asked four experts for their “takes” on the retiring Petraeus, retired Lt. Col. John Nagl (once called the “Johnny Appleseed” of COIN), and Brookings flack Michael O’Hanlon proved how effective Petraeus has been in cultivating civilian surrogates for his legacy in Washington.

Nagl: I was asked at the time whether I thought it was too late for counterinsurgency to work in Iraq. I estimated the chances of success at one in six, but concluded, “If there’s a man on the planet who can make it work, it’s Petraeus.”

After turning the tide in Iraq, Petraeus was called to take command of another theater of war, replacing Gen. Stanley McChrystal in Afghanistan…

Although it is too soon to say Petraeus was able to turn the tide in Afghanistan, it seems fair to suggest that he deserves to be mentioned with Grant and Eisenhower as American generals who have commanded successfully in two theaters of war.

O’Hanlon: Bob Costas once said about the greatest basketball player ever to live that “Michael Jordan is not just a superstar, he’s an overachieving superstar.” That is the best way I can describe Gen. Petraeus, a good friend and former graduate school classmate.

Had enough yet? It’s hard to “stay thirsty, my friends,” as our Dos Equis don Juan suggests, when the Kool-Aid is getting poured down our throats with a funnel.

But something is happening. While writers here at and elsewhere have been criticizing the mythology for years, a new grumbling has begun in the military blogosphere and among analysts who seem fed up with folklore and especially the cult of personality.

Most importantly, they are more actively questioning the supposedly successful Surge, which might just put the final analysis of Petraeus and his myriad accomplishments on hold.

“First of all, he didn’t ‘turn around the war in Iraq.’ Even his own Baghdad staff has begun to second-guess the ‘Surge’ myth, perhaps because the historical record points to the Iraqis doing much of that on their own, thanks to a brutal civil war won by a confederation of Shi’ite groups,” points out Iraq veteran and Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reporter Carl Prine, who produces the Line of Departure blog. Taking note of the aforementioned NPR vignette about Petraeus rigging up his own mic, Prine wrote:

Damn it. Can we get over the cheap hagiography? Stanley McChrystal living like an aerobic monk in Bagram, Jim Mattis as the “warrior monk” at CENTCOM or all the corn pone dolloped with sugar we’ve had to ingest over the aw shucks Everyman stack of Petraeus pancakes served to us by newspapers — I’ve had my fill and I’m ready to puke.

Generals are pampered creatures. They’re surrounded by large staffs. They have dedicated drivers, valets, press analysts and a retinue of caretakers. The higher they go in the bureaucracy the larger and, typically, more talented their keepers.

When you see a general doing his own work it usually means any of three things: (A) He’s micromanaging again; (B) He’s putting on a show for easy touches like Rachel Martin; or, (C) All the above, the final act of the consummate showman.

Earlier this summer, retired Lt. Col. Douglas Ollivant, senior national security fellow at The New America Foundation, who once served as an adviser to Petraeus in Baghdad and more recently to U.S. forces in Afghanistan, published “Countering the New Orthodoxy: Reinterpreting Counterinsurgency in Iraq,” and it has caused quite a stir.

In it, Ollivant insists on presenting a “counter-narrative,” to the “generally accepted conventional wisdom [that is] cited in most media accounts, recycled by pundits and is generally accepted within the U.S. military community at large” — that the violence in Baghdad diminished by 2009 primarily due to three factors: 30,000 more troops, COIN, and “the dynamic leadership” of Petraeus.

The real story is more complicated, and while it acknowledges Petraeus’ leadership and the important tactical changes made in the name of counterinsurgency in 2007, other critical dynamics entirely out of American control were at play in Iraq at the time and often get lost in the telling and in the military’s popular version of COIN. Read more here [.pdf].

Not surprisingly, concludes Ollivant, it is unlikely that this doctrine — COIN as a formula — will ever see success integrated into U.S. operations in Afghanistan.

In that vein, milblogs like Small Wars Journal have been asking “Is COIN Dead?” in relation to Afghanistan, while more recently, discussions like “Who actually read FM 3-24?” place the entire theory of counterinsurgency under the microscope. Turning the debate back full circle to Petraeus and Iraq is necessary and has, until now, been the lonely dominion of critics like Col. Gian Gentile and a squadron of retired officers competing for airtime with the vaunted COINdinistas.

In fact, “a gaggle of strategists I hang around like to joke that ‘Everyone is Gian Gentile now,’” Prine wrote in his introduction of Ollivant’s paper in June.

“There are real questions now about the whole notion of counterinsurgency as its being portrayed to the American people, and these things are being widely discussed in military circles. It’s all over the place,” said retired Col. Douglas Macgregor in a recent interview with He goes straight to the source — today’s negative headlines in Iraq — to point out how “success” is always in the eye of the beholder.

“Why do these major media outlets continue to maintain the fiction that something good happened in Iraq?” he said. “Once that fiction is revealed, then the Petraeus myth is destroyed completely.”

That might be happening sooner rather than later, insists Macgregor. “One of the reasons there is such a huge push to keep our forces in Iraq is we need to maintain the fiction that we were successful. If we were successful, would we really need 5,000 mercenaries to secure the State Department? The answer is no.”

As for Petraeus, he added, it may turn out he has the limited shelf life of a popular marketing campaign; even the Dos Equis guy can jump the shark. Let’s just hope Petraeus jumps it first.

“Once you get inside the door in these backrooms where retired senior officers like me talk to each other, their opinions of Petraeus aren’t as exalted as you might think. He had tremendous media coverage throughout this whole thing. Up until now, there hasn’t much regard for the truth…. I think the truth is out now, and as the truth becomes more and more obvious over the next three or four years, then no one will be paying attention to David Petraeus at all.”

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.