Petraeus Races Against the History Clock

It was merely coincidence that on the same week that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki came to Washington to plead for more intelligence and military aid for his imploding nation that former Gen. David Petraeus published a 7,600-word online essay on "How We Won in Iraq."

Or was it?

Former Gen. David Petraeus leads college kids in a run at University of Southern California where he landed a new post
Former Gen. David Petraeus leads college kids in a run at University of Southern California where he landed a new post

Petraeus, who left the CIA in December 2012 after being outed for an extramarital affair with his biographer Paula Broadwell, has been engaged in an industrious image reparation campaign over the last year. That effort includes, of course, guaranteeing the careful arrangement of his 2007 "Surge" in the annals of American war history, simplified and clean of the tricky nuance that has accompanied its retelling in recent years. Not only did the Surge save Iraq, according to Petraeus, it epitomized the very essence of successful counterinsurgency (COIN) warfare in the modern era.

Obviously the current bloodbath in Iraq, just two years since the last US troops pulled up stakes, complicates his mission a bit. The establishment line is that the return of violence there – not seen since 2008 levels – is all Maliki’s fault. This is quite true. But that’s only part of the story. We cannot forget that Maliki was cultivated and supported by the US and "savior general" Petraeus, often called "King David" in those days, through two elections. When the US left that country, there was no "political reconciliation," nor civic reform – as COIN promised. The prisons were filled with angry Sunnis tortured by US-supported Shia (many of them likely former militia who we know now Petraeus tacitly if not directly condoned). There was no social safety net to speak of, and millions of Iraqis – mostly Sunnis – were and are still displaced, the victims of a brutal sectarian cleansing, again, supported by the US, which ensured Maliki’s ultimate stronghold on the country.

Is there any question now that COIN was just a Band-Aid that got the US out of a quagmire with a modicum of face, never a solution for long-term peace in Iraq? The evidence is right in front of us.

That is why Petraeus is now scrambling to get ahead of history while the blood is still wet, and emotions still rage on both sides of the ideological fence. But he hasn’t much time. Already, clarity is prevailing among historians and journalists and veterans writing about the war (Petraeus himself appears cognizant of this, acknowledging –sort of – in his Foreign Policy piece, that the so-called Anbar Awakening began before the Surge, an important note most war scholars of most stripes agree upon today)

Petraeus knows how important history plays in the "next war" – he wrote about that very issue relating to Vietnam in his doctoral dissertation (an early Petraeus salvo in promoting counterinsurgency warfare) in 1987. In fact, he and his post-Vietnam compatriots helped frame the idea of "the better war" – that counterinsurgency could have worked in Vietnam if the right general (Creighton Abrams, who "got it") was given time to win it. This notion, used in part to rehabilitate the Army’s image after Vietnam, also helped catapult COIN and Petraeus and his "Crusaders" into the drivers’ seat in Iraq, and then Afghanistan.

Col. Gian Gentile, longtime Petraeus critic, in his recent book, Wrong Turn: America’s Deadly Embrace of Counterinsurgency:

Petraeus’s summation of what went wrong in Vietnam encapsulates the fundamental misunderstanding of Vietnam within the counterinsurgency narrative: that the war could have been won if only counterinsurgency methods were used. During the surge in Iraq, Petraeus would come to represent the way Vietnam should have been fought because, as the narrative portrayed, he was finally doing counterinsurgency correctly.

Petraeus now has a two-pronged mission. First, as a widely held self-promoter who went from savior to king to mythological figure over the course of a few years in Iraq, Petraeus won’t be brought down from Olympus to live again amongst mortals without a fight.

Second, he knows that if his own version of events is hardened in the war canon – that the Surge brought Iraq peace but Iraq was unable to keep it – it will at least persist in military war colleges and service academies and among policymakers as not only history, but doctrine to inform "the next war." As Gentile says in his book, "the myth that COIN works is catnip for advocates of US intervention overseas because it promises the possibility of successful ‘better wars.’"

Petraeus, ever the Don Draper (or Dick Whitman?) of the civ-mil nexus, knows his personal legacy is tied up with the endurance of the counterinsurgency/Surge narrative. He spent the last years of his Afghan command spinning (some say lying) about the so-called success of the war while cultivating a media persona so heroic and elevated it gave the Dos Equis guy a run for his money. So his recent moves have been methodic if not predictable.

He started with an apology last March, an Oprah-style plea for redemption. Then he went on to hold several simultaneous boondoggle appointments at prestigious universities on each coast – the latest one at Harvard – in an attempt to remind us he is an "intellectual warrior" in demand. Photos of him running (ahead of students, more than half his age) at his new University of Southern California gig, show us he is still a leader, and with vigor. His frequent op-ed pieces, including the latest one on Foreign Policy, further promote his PhD bonefides, and of course, his own version of events.

Reality in Iraq, however, threatens to throw a stick into the former general’s spokes. Maliki, who once told the US to shove it when Washington wanted to leave thousands of legally immune troops in Iraq after 2011, is now facing levels of violence not seen since 2008. He came to the White House on Friday looking for F-16 fighter planes and American-operated spy drones. The violence there has been escalating for over a year. So while it might seem improbable that Petraeus could bang out a 7,600-word apologia on a moment’s notice (Maliki’s visit was just a rumor until a couple of weeks ago) it appears that he is already anticipating the fallout on his legacy and has launched a preemptive PR blitz.

But will it work? Can it work? Growing evidence indicates that Petraeus for all his personal charm and dogged attempts to rehabilitate himself, has a harder road to hoe that he probably thinks.

One, the once supportive national security intelligencia is tired of covering for him. Aside from Broadwell’s hagiography and gentle treatments by writers like Thomas Ricks (not to mention a pro-Surge book just released by former Petreaus aide, Peter Mansoor), there are a growing number of sharp elbows from within the establishment regarding how the wars were fought in Iraq and Afghanistan (upon which Petraeus attempted to apply COIN, quite unacceptably). More so, they question the Surge myth itself.

Two, the media seems bored if not wary of Petraeus now. The affair with Broadwell really hurt him. It not only tarnished his reputation as a stainless knight, but Broadwell herself brought an unseemly element to the story that embarrassed the media, which, for a year before, had slavishly helped to her hawk her book, All In: the Education of David Petraeus, a boldfaced promotion for the Surge and her lover’s legacy. Looking back at Jon Stewart awkwardly engaging in a cringe-worthy push-up contest with the shapely but overly self-possessed Mrs. Broadwell, and it’s hard to think the media isn’t still smarting from that kick in the teeth.

Three, the public is indifferent, if not antagonistic. Unrelenting protests have forced Petraeus into a secure building on the City College of New York (CUNY) campus. He teaches there on for a $1 salary after his $150,000 offer drew hellfire in the press. Sure, there will always be antiwar protesters, especially on college campuses, who see him as the uber-villain in yet another dark chapter of American history. Just as there will always be pro-war types who must "believe" the Surge "won" Iraq, and that Petraeus is a hero. But the tide of devotion that used to exist in mainstream America seems to have receded back to normal levels, as evidenced in the more than 106 comments to his Foreign Policy manifesto. The telling majority says he is full of it, or worse:

"Petraeus is simply acting out his premise that perception is more important than what really happened. Tell a big enough lie often enough and the people will come to believe it."

" Well-informed and observant people don’t buy his crap."

Barbs be damned – or even ignored – Petraeus, a notoriously competitive man, may actually be thriving on this race against history. Heck, a notorious egoist, too, he may even be running for office. But he should be warned: truth has always proven to be a fierce opponent, and sometimes, eventually, it may even win.

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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.