Petraeus Fetishism

David Petraeus is a military superstar; he's not commander-in-chief.

Charles Krauthammer makes a rather odd argument in support of continuing on the present course in Iraq. Essentially, it boils down to: Trust in Petraeus.

It is understandable that Sens. Lugar, Voinovich, Domenici, Snowe and Warner may no longer trust President Bush’s judgment when he tells them to wait until Petraeus reports in September. What is not understandable is the vote of no confidence they are passing on Petraeus. These are the same senators who sent him back to Iraq by an 81 to 0 vote to institute his new counterinsurgency strategy.

A month ago, Petraeus was asked whether we could still win in Iraq. The general, who had recently attended two memorial services for soldiers lost under his command, replied that if he thought he could not succeed he would not be risking the life of a single soldier.

Just this week, Petraeus said that the one thing he needs more than anything else is time. To cut off Petraeus’s plan just as it is beginning — the last surge troops arrived only last month — on the assumption that we cannot succeed is to declare Petraeus either deluded or dishonorable. Deluded in that, as the best-positioned American in Baghdad, he still believes we can succeed. Or dishonorable in pretending to believe in victory and sending soldiers to die in what he really knows is an already failed strategy.

Now, I’m a Petraeus fan. He’s the archetype of the scholar-warrior that T.X. Hammes prescribed in The Sling and The Stone and I recommended in my recent article for The New Individualist on preparing for the next war.

I do think, as I’ve suggested many times, that the proverbial licking of Petraeus’ boots in the media and the halls of Congress has been a bit much. As I noted in passing yesterday and Matt Yglesias and Steven Taylor lay out more directly today, Petraeus was in charge of training a self-sufficient Iraqi security force that could take over for us. He didn’t get that done.

Moreover, he’s given far too much credit for reinventing the Army’s new counterinsurgency doctrine. For one thing, there’s not much new about it; it’s mostly just dusting off age old lessons that we continually learn and then discard as “not what armies do.” And, regardless of whose signature is on the book, general officers don’t write training manuals. If anyone above the rank of major wrote so much as a paragraph, I’d be quite surprised.

That all said, I agree that the politicians should defer to him on matters of tactics and rely on his expert advice in setting policy. They should not, however, as Krauthammer suggests, effectively cede grand strategy to the military, dispensing entirely with the fundamental notion of civilian control.

Yes, a can-do guy like Petraeus believes he’ll get the job done given infinite time. So what? It’s up to the civilian policy-makers to decide whether the nation is willing to continue to devote the blood and treasure necessary to get the job done. His guess is likely better than theirs as to whether we can win; it’s their job to decide whether we’re willing to pay the price of finding out.

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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 and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. I concur that Petraeus seems like a good man for the job.

    However, I am becoming increasingly tired of the notion, which under-girds Krauthammer’s logic, that solutions are somehow about finding the Right Man. To overly focus on one part of the machine is to ignore not only the rest of the machine, but what the machine is supposed to be doing. Petraeus is one person in a broad system tasked with a difficult job. To boil the whole thing down to him makes no sense.

    As such, I think that the title of your post is on target (and here’s another example).

    Even if one wants to argue that focusing on Petraeus is a proxy for talking about The Surge, that still misses the point that an overall evaluation about what to do in Iraq isn’t just an issue of whether The Surge is successful or not.

  2. Anjin-san says:

    That all said, I agree that the politicians should defer to him on matters of tactics and rely on his expert advise in setting policy

    Good point. What about the generals that Bush fired because they did not tell him what he wanted to hear regarding the surge?

  3. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    So James are you suggesting that Patraeus be given the title, Judas Goat? To recount, the Senate overwhelmingly confirmed him to lead in Iraq, yes or no? My question is how long was it before leaders of the Judas party, namely Harry Reid declared the effort lost? I find it amazing how the radical left has found such a big voice for its tiny size. If you think Americans want to lose another war, even if they are tired of the way this one is going, I think you would be rudely surprised. You, James make it sound like we have invested lots of lives in this venture. A quick review of history will show this is the least costly of a major conflict we have ever been involved in, both in manpower and effort. Those who stand against this war do it mostly for the good of the Judas party in the next election, not for the good of the Country. Congress gave the Commander in Chief the authority to conduct this war, it is traitorous to declare that war lost before our military says it is. In war time we do not conduct affairs by committee.

  4. Anthony C says:

    “I am becoming increasingly tired of the notion, which under-girds Krauthammer’s logic, that solutions are somehow about finding the Right Man. To overly focus on one part of the machine is to ignore not only the rest of the machine, but what the machine is supposed to be doing. Petraeus is one person in a broad system tasked with a difficult job. To boil the whole thing down to him makes no sense.”

    I think this is a fair point, while noting that the Right Man is probably a necessary condition of success – just not a sufficient one.

    It doesn’t start with Petraeus, of course. A lot of the reaction to various developments in Iraq has been heavily invested in Right Man Syndrome. You know the sort of thing – “If only we’d brought in Ahmed Chalabi.” “General Abizaid’s background makes him the perfect man for the job, he’s going to have the locals eating out of his hand.” “Iyad Allawi’s just the man we need – I hear he went out and shot some insurgent prisoners himself today. This could be a real turning point.” “I’ve got a gut feeling that this Maliki fellow is going to turn things around – he gives the impression of being a really purposeful guy.” “Negroponte’s got the ear of the President – this shows we’re finally getting serious.” “Khalilzad got the Afghans pulling together, now he’s going to do it with the Iraqis.” The Petraeus stuff is certainly the most highly developed example of Right Man syndrome we’ve seen, but it’s very much of a type, I’d argue. That’s not to say Petraeus isn’t a very, very good general who knows his stuff.

    On the issue of Petraeus’ record in training Iraqi security forces, that’s often deployed as evidence for him not being as good as his publicity. It’s possible. What’s equally likely, however, is that he is as good as his publicity but that no matter how good the man, it was an unwinnable battle. Of course, if that was true with the training it can be (though it isn’t necessarily) just as true of the surge as well.

  5. Anthony your list is spot on–there has been an ongoing argument that this or that person will finally get things on track.

    To date, no such luck and at some point it needs to be recognized that perhaps there is no track upon which things can be put.

  6. legion says:

    I am becoming increasingly tired of the notion, which under-girds Krauthammer’s logic, that solutions are somehow about finding the Right Man.

    Indeed; to run with Anjin-san’s comment, we can replace all the generals in the entire military and it will make no difference. Bush and Cheney are the Wrong Men. We’ve seen time and again, as far back as Shinseki, that all of the decisions are already made regarding Iraq; the only people who get replaced are the ones who don’t nod their heads & lie to support those decisions.

    Petraeus can make all the plans in the world, but if they require doing things that Bush & Cheney don’t want to do (i.e., anything other than “stay the course”), he will be overruled, sidelined, and eventually dismissed.

    By the way, has anyone heard anything from LTG Lute? One would expect the “War Czar” to have something to say about the recent reports on progress in the actual war, no?

  7. legion says:

    Uh, I mean Anthony’s comment. Not that there’s anything wrong with Anjin-san’s point, mind you…

  8. Andy says:

    We just need a generals and admirals czar to organize Petraeus, the CENTCOM commander, Lute, Odierno, CJCS, etc.

  9. […] 3. Saint Petraeus? James Joyner thinks not. […]

  10. brainy435 says:

    How can anyone debate this article without noting the actual point that Krauthammer makes? How horrible are your leadership skills if you pick a man to do a job, pay for the work he is to do and then the second he starts, you tell him that he already failed?

  11. brainy435,

    Well, the problem with your statement is that a) Congress didn’t appoint Petraeus, Bush did. All the Senate did was ratify the choice. As such the argument that Krauthammer makes that somehow Congress sent Petraeus and now wants to yank the plan doesn’t actually track with the way things work.

    (Indeed, I addressed that here and here).

    Second, the issue is not that the clock on Iraq started in January of 2007 (which was more than a second ago, btw), but instead it started over four years ago. As such, judgments over what can and cannot be done in Iraq have to be made in a broader context than simply the Petraeus era.

    Yet, for some reason there is a contingent out there, of whom Krauthammer is a partisan, who seem to think that we can reduce the discussion to Petraeus.

    That doesn’t make any sense.

  12. brainy435 says:

    Stephen, your arguments are disingenuous.

    First, you use the same rational for letting Congress off the hook for the “Surge” as you do for the entire war. Congress approved both. If they had objected or believed either were doomed to fail, they could have stopped either or both. They did not, in fact Petraeus was confirmed unanimously, and it’s not like he wasn’t forthright with what he was going to do.

    Second, although Petraeus was confirmed in January, the “Surge” was only fully staffed late last month. And that was after a contentious battle over funding it. So the Senate unanimously confirmed Petraeus and funded his plan, but have been calling it a failure for awhile now, when it only got going a few weeks ago.

    I don’t recall anyone, even Krauthammer, trying to “reduce the discussion to Petraeus.” But for Gods sake, give the man his chance. Anbar and Diyala are performing well, and many of the ISF troops Petraeus was charged with training are also doing well, albeit in small areas for now. But even that, if you read Mike Yon, is mostly due to incompetent leaders, not any failure of training or will.

  13. Jim Henley says:

    The other side of Right Man Syndrome is what we might call Bad Guy Fallacy, the idea that killing this or that supervillain will cause Evil HQ to collapse in a paroxysm of fire while we and the Iraqi people leap to safety in cinematic slo-mo, our arms around the female lead. At various points the official line has been that if we just got rid of Baby Sadr, or Zarqawi, Qbert-and-Oopsie, or, way back at the Dawn of Warblogging, their dad, resistance would collapse and everything would go our way.

    In actual fact we’re operating under powerful bureaucratic handicaps in the face of stubborn social forces. Even the liberal focus on GWB and Fourth Branch’s failings as The Problem are just an inverse example of Right-Man Syndrome. It’s only true insofar as the two of them began the war at all – the real failing. And the thing brainy is right about is that even there they had help.

  14. Cernig says:

    Lets not forget that while Petreaus was waxing lyrical about the numbers of Iraqi security forces being stood up (which later turned out to be ghosts and sleight-of-hand), he was also supposed to be supervising the Iraqi Defense Ministry’s spending. That didn’t go so well either. He was the American on the spot as the greatest theft in history took place. Over $2.3 billion walked out the door on his watch.

    Regards, C

  15. TJIT says:

    They should not, however, as Krauthammer suggests, effectively cede grand strategy to the military, dispensing entirely with the fundamental notion of civilian control.

    Civilian control is crucial to our system of government. The question is do we have any national civilian political institutions with the capability of providing this control?

    Watching the stupidity congress churns out on a regular basis gives me little faith in their ability to competently comprehend, let alone manage, a grand military strategy.

    The various bridges to nowhere and fiascos like the energy bills show the further congress is away from military strategy the better off we all are.

  16. Mike says:

    Greetings,

    Two words – ‘Anbar’ and ‘Diyala’. These two provinces have been turned from nearly lost to well under control.

    The Sunni tribes have had enough of A-Q and their evil members. The Sunnis have begun activly helping us fight them.

    Maybe the Sunnis had to get first hand experience with A-Q to understand how much better it is to work with us. If so, the last four years were shaping years that will allow Gen Petreaous to be more successful than in the past.

    Again, the only way we lose this war is if we quit, the costs are minimal (in both human life and monetary terms) – as a nation, we could keep this up for decades with no loss of national power. Before you run screaming into the mist, this has been the lowest casualty rate in any war, any police action or any occupation of any time.

    Regards,

  17. Mike says:

    Well, maybe except the Dominican Republic and Haiti. . . . .

  18. brainy34:

    Please detail how my argument is “disengenuous”–the bottom line is the we expect the Senate to ratify the President’s appointments, especially military ones. To pretend as if that confers automatic endorsement of what said appointee does is simply incorrect.

    Further, it isn’t as if before Petraeus replacement Casey that there wasn’t substantial “get out of Iraq” sentiment in the Congress and in the country.

    And, I must confess, this statement is amusing:

    I don’t recall anyone, even Krauthammer, trying to “reduce the discussion to Petraeus.” But for Gods sake, give the man his chance.

    You state that the argument isn’t being reduced to Petraeus, and then you turn specifically to Petraeus and “his” chance in the next sentence.

    The issue is hand is well beyond simply Petraeus and his chance. When this fails, are we going to have to give the next guy a chance, and the next?

    And understand: Petraeus already is one of several “next guys.”

    The real issue isn’t Diyala or Anbar (or even AQI), it is the Iraqi state, and we appear to be no closer to a functional state now than we were before Petraeus was appointed. At some point we have to change course, and while there have been some tactical shifts, the basic strategy has remained the same–and it doesn’t appear to be working (i.e., wait it out with US troops in place until the Iraqis are ready to take care of themselves).

  19. Another Example of Petraeus Messianism…

  20. Jim Henley says:

    Steven, your argument is disingenuous because brainy doesn’t like it.

    Really, this stuff isn’t hard.

  21. brainy435 says:

    disingenuous (adj.) Not straightforward or candid; insincere or calculating. Purposely misrepresenting the case for patience wrt the “Surge” meets all 4 criteria.

    Stephen, so you EXPECT the senate to rubber-stamp every appointment made be the president? What the hell is the point, then? If there is no check or balance in it, it’s useless. And if there was “substantial ‘get out of Iraq’ sentiment in the Congress and in the country” why send a guy in with a new plan and then fund him? That seems like it would be a monumental waste of resources and criminally irresponsible, since it was expected that moving the troops out of larger bases, in an attempt to connect more with Iraqis and hold cleared areas, would lead to more troop deaths.

    “You state that the argument isn’t being reduced to Petraeus, and then you turn specifically to Petraeus and “his” chance in the next sentence.”

    I want the “Surge” to win, and right now Petraeus is the man directing the surge. If you want to look at who is trying to reduce the conversation to focus solely on Petraeus, I suggest rereading the title of this post.

    “The real issue isn’t Diyala or Anbar (or even AQI), it is the Iraqi state, and we appear to be no closer to a functional state now than we were before Petraeus was appointed.”

    So the issue, as you see it, has nothing to do with the initial successes of a strategy in its infancy? You see no correlation between security and trust in a government? You see no correlation between securing major enemy strongholds and victory? Interesting. Naive and poorly thought out, but interesting.

    “The issue is hand is well beyond simply Petraeus and his chance. When this fails, are we going to have to give the next guy a chance, and the next?

    And understand: Petraeus already is one of several ‘next guys.'”

    In a word: yes. We fight until we win. We adjust as best we can while we still have the ability to fight. And we sure as hell don’t turn our backs on the millions we encouraged to defy barbarism by engaging in the democratic process, all because some pathetic whiners back home can’t see past their ignorance or self-guilt to see the bigger picture of what a democratic Iraq means for us back here.

  22. […] us to victory in Iraq. Specifically I noted a Charles Krauthammer column and an Ed Morrissey post. James Joyner also noted what he called “Petraeus […]