Petraeus’ Princeton PhD Posse

WaPo fronts a Thomas Ricks piece about a “brain trust” of PhD-holding officers being assembled by LTG David Petraeus to figure out how to win the Iraq counterinsurgency.

Gen. David H. Petraeus, the new U.S. commander in Iraq, is assembling a small band of warrior-intellectuals — including a quirky Australian anthropologist, a Princeton economist who is the son of a former U.S. attorney general and a military expert on the Vietnam War sharply critical of its top commanders — in an eleventh-hour effort to reverse the downward trend in the Iraq war. Army officers tend to refer to the group as “Petraeus guys.” They are smart colonels who have been noticed by Petraeus, and who make up one of the most selective clubs in the world: military officers with doctorates from top-flight universities and combat experience in Iraq.


As the U.S.-designed campaign to bring security to Baghdad unfolds, Petraeus’s chief economic adviser, Col. Michael J. Meese, will coordinate security and reconstruction efforts, trying to ensure that “build” follows the “clear” and “hold” phases of action. Meese also holds a PhD from Princeton, where he studied how the Army historically handled budget cuts. He is the son of former attorney general Edwin Meese III, who was a member of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, whose December critique helped push the Bush administration to shift its approach in Baghdad.

Petraeus, who along with the group’s members declined to be interviewed for this article, has chosen as his chief adviser on counterinsurgency operations an outspoken officer in the Australian Army. Lt. Col. David Kilcullen holds a PhD in anthropology, for which he studied Islamic extremism in Indonesia.


The two most influential members of the brain trust are likely to be Col. Peter R. Mansoor and Col. H.R. McMaster, whose influence already outstrips their rank. Both men served on a secret panel convened last fall by Gen. Peter Pace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to review Iraq strategy. The panel’s core conclusion, never released to the public but briefed to President Bush on Dec. 13, according to an officer on the Joint Staff, was that the U.S. government should “go long” in Iraq by shifting from a combat stance to a long-term training-and-advisory effort.

Warrior-scholars are the ideal leaders for COIN, which requires detailed cultural and historical awareness. Petraeus himself holds a PhD in international studies from Princeton.

It should be noted that many elite universities–including Princeton–have “understandings” with the military that specially selected officers will emerge with a PhD in hand in no more than three years. That’s far less time than typical for earning a doctorate these days, although it was a typical schedule as recently as the 1960s. Granting that mid-grade officers have extraordinary time management skills compared to the average grad student and are drawing their full salaries and thus not distracted by teaching assistantships and the like, there is a certain gentleman’s course aspect to some of these degrees.

That said, this is an interesting experiment. A team of proven military leaders with demonstrated intellectual curiosity and expertise in their subject matter is a radical change from the mentality that preceded Petraeus’ turn at the helm.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. I suspect that a review of 0-6 and above would find a plethora of advanced degrees.

  2. Triumph says:

    Warrior-scholars are the ideal leaders for COIN, which requires detailed cultural and historical awareness. Petraeus himself holds a PhD in international studies from Princeton.

    Yes, a bunch of liberal academics running a war seems like a brilliant idea. Princeton, of course, is where defeatist Cornel West both did his Ph.D. and currently teaches. Paul Krugman also is a professor in the international studies program.

    Of course, it is pretty understandable that Bush is tapping the Princeton team–since the president he most resembles–Woodrow Wilson–was once Princeton’s president.

  3. Dave Schuler says:

    David Kilcullen, mentioned in the article, is a frequent poster at Small Wars Journal Blog.

  4. legion says:

    I honestly don’t recall – were McNamera’s Whiz Kids notedly left- or right-wing in background?

  5. Triumph says:

    McNamera’s Whiz Kids notedly left- or right-wing in background?

    McNamara, of course, came from a left wing background–President of Ford Motors.

    Alain Enthoven–similarly a commie. His main interest lately has been to advocate for a Bush-like market-based type of health insurance system. Before DoD, he worked at noted left-wing think tank, RAND Corporation.

    Charlie Hitch was also a RAND guy.

  6. spacemonkey says:

    Petraeus’ Princeton PhD Posse

    Nice alliteration.