The Petraeus Problem

So, I’ve finally managed to work my through through the bulk of Broadwell and Loeb’s All In: The Education of General David Petraeus, and I’m sorry to say it is as bad as the excerpts in the Washington Post suggested. It is one-sided, defensive, and well, just an  inch short of hagiography. The problem is that the whole book is structured around the question, “How did Petraeus become the genius who saved Iraq and gave us hope in Afghanistan.” Well, not literally, but that is the underlying theme. And that is too bad because Petraeus is undeniably a fascinating character. Fascinating and flawed. Rick Atkinson’s In the Company of Soldiers is actually, I think, a much more interesting take on the man, though too time constrained to be truly definitive.

If I may, here is what I’d like a book on Petraeus to address:

(1) Petraeus has had an amazing career. Much of his career momentum has come from association with powerful four-stars. Broadwell  notes that this resulted in some criticism of Petraeus’ capacity for “self-promotion.” But then she essentially dismisses those criticism as the result of “envy” and then notes, “What few acknowledged was that four-star generals hired aides for their ability, not their political skills.” Now, look, no one denies Petraeus is a capable man. But clearly, the guy is a brilliant political operator as well. That is part of what makes him who he is. And yes, some of that involves the usual, and not so admirable, ass-kissing, suppression of dissent, and bureaucratic scullduggery that we don’t like to see in our heroes. But it is what it is. It would have been interesting to learn more about how young David Petraeus maneuvered in order to keep his career moving forward despites its, at time, unconventional track.

(2) There is no clearer moment of Petraeus as flatterer than his September 25, 2004 op-ed in the Washington Post, where he declared,

“There will be more tough times, frustration and disappointment along the way. It is likely that insurgent attacks will escalate as Iraq’s elections approach. Iraq’s security forces are, however, developing steadily and they are in the fight. Momentum has gathered in recent months. With strong Iraqi leaders out front and with continued coalition — and now NATO — support, this trend will continue.”

The op-ed also argued that despite the violence, “Nonetheless, there are reasons for optimism.”

Now, look, here is the problem. Petraeus returned from Iraq the first time in February 2004, with the attitude that we were royally screwing things up, and that our approach needed to change dramatically. Indeed, in the brief interim between his command of the 101st around Mosul and his posting as commander of the Multi-National Security Transition Command in June 2004, he did a PR blitz making exactly this point. I had the opportunity to get that briefing at the time, and the tone was certainly not that progress was occurring and that we ought to be optimistic. Instead it was, that there are small pockets of people in the U.S. military who “get it,” but that our approach to stabilization in Iraq was badly flawed.

In short, Petraeus’ 2004 op-ed was, well, at best lipstick on a pig. And then the question becomes, why? But Broadwell shows no interest in this question. The most she ever does is assure us, over and over, that Petraeus was just doing what he thought was best for national security. But it is hard to avoid the assessment that at least in September 2004, this involved either kissing up to the Bush administration for personal reasons or, worse, in an effort to sway domestic politics on the eve of an election. Did Petraeus even consider the political implications of that op-ed? It is a key moment in the shaping of his public persona. I’d like to know more about it.

(3) Petraeus also, I think, needs to be seen as a man who is very good at co-opting others for his own goals. Here is Broadwell’s description of his efforts to craft a new COIN manual, “He would launch this ambitious effort by hosting an inclusive workshop at Fort Leavenworth, the Army’s schoolhouse, in February 2006.” And,

“Within a  month of taking command, Petraeus e-mailed the manual as it existed at the time to several intellectuals…. He sought feedback on its content — another example of his crowdsource approach to decision making.”

Happily, this, according to Broadwell led to a product that was “lauded inside and outside the military, but is also energized military skeptics, who said bad strategy… could not be fixed with sound tactics. Petraeus welcomed the constructive criticism, and a spirited debate ensued among defense intellectuals.”

Okay, so a few points here.

First, the COIN manual as it ultimately emerged was remarkably close to the arguments Petraeus was making in 2004 about how to conduct these sorts of operations. My sense is that what happened as Leavenworth was less about developing new doctrine as much as it was socializing Petraeus’ perspective and winning adherent by giving the illusion of consultation. A lot of the people involved in this process, by the way, saw tremendous career benefits from associating themselves with this effort, and I don’t think that was an accident.

Second, Broadwell didn’t bother, as far as I can tell, to interview critics of the doctrine because let me assure you there are many, many people who don’t see the process as positively as Broadwell does. There are many people who still complain that (a) they were not consulted and (b) that their feedback was summarily dismissed if it disagreed with the thrust of the emerging doctrine. Just a few names to google if you want, Steve Metz, Gian Gentile, and Celeste Ward.

[UPDATE: I don't want to put words in their mouths, so please ask Metz, Gentile, and Ward to characterize their own feelings about 3-24. I happen to think that many of the criticism that they have cogently made about 3-24 have been ignored or dismissed because they did not fit into the preconceptions of Petraeus and others.]

Third 3-24 is not a good document. Its flaws are myriad, including historically and theoretically untenable and unsophisticated assumptions about legitimacy and “civilian” capacity. In addition, it is strategically and operationally bankrupt due to its almost complete failure to consider the actions of the enemy. One of the few critics Broadwell notes is Ralph Peters, who is, you know, a crackpot. Why not engage some of some credible critics?

Fourth, I am not sure I buy this ”welcoming constructive criticism” bit, though the argument here is indirect. By 2006, there was what I think can only be described as a systematic a campaign to suppress criticism of emerging COIN doctrine. Part of it was public character assassination by widely read mediocrities like Tom Ricks, but it certainly entered the COINdinista zeitgeist more broadly, with both defense intellectuals and military officers being classified as to whether they “got it” or didn’t. If you “got it,” it meant access and promotions, lucrative and prestigious consulting opportunities, and so on. I was in the military education system in 2006, and I had a number of students express their sense that there was chilling dynamic occurring. From what I can tell, it got worse after. Dissent on the 3-24 front was dangerous. It could make you enemies both from inside the bureaucracy and from well-placed outsiders (such as Jack Keane).

Now look, that is just my perspective. But I assure you, it is shared by others. But the point isn’t whether I am right or wrong, but rather that portraying the development and socialization of 3-24 as some sort of happy, cooperative, open process is just BS. It was messier and rougher than that. And part of Petraeus’ genius is/was his ability to manage that to get to where he wanted to go.

(4) The whole 2009 surge, McChrystal’s MacArthuresque breaches of civil-military norms, the smackdown of Lute and Cartwright, etc. Broadwell just sort of dimisses all that by saying, “Petraeus argued that he was merely recommending a force level needed to protect that nation’s strategic interests — and achieve the president’s stated objectives. ‘We truly didn’t try to box them in….’” Well, there you go, that settles it.

But wait, no it doesn’t. The whole process was extraordinary. What was Petraeus’ role in all of this? What did he think of McChrystal’s strategic assessment team, which was largely composed of reliable yes men? What did he think of the leak of that report? Or McChrystal’s IISS speech? Of Mullen smacking down Cartwright. What was his role in promoting the think tank support and agitation in favor of the surge? There was a coordinated campaign, for good or ill. Petraeus clearly thinks it was for the good. Fine, but let’s hear more about it.

(5) Presidential speculation. What was Petraeus doing when he spoke at St Anselm’s in March 2010? Why were there persistent reports  of Petreaus speaking to various small groups of well-heeled political players? Broadwell just accepts his assertion that he was uninterested in elected office at face value. Isn’t that worth a little more attention. It seems to me that while Petreaus was always eager to publicly deny presidential aspirations, it certainly served his purpose for that whispering campaign to continue. It raised the risks for Obama to cross him. “If we don’t give him what he wants, he’ll run against us.” Was Petraeus aware of that dynamic? Did he try to exploit it?

We’re still waiting for the definitive book on Petraeus. He is a brilliant, difficult, controversial man and deserves better than Broadwell’s extended mash note.

3 comments to The Petraeus Problem

  • [...] by Jill Sargent Russell on 19 April 2012 · 0 comments var addthis_product = 'wpp-264'; var addthis_config = {"data_track_clickback":true,"data_track_addressbar":false};if (typeof(addthis_share) == "undefined"){ addthis_share = [];}[*I cannot take credit for the phrase, but I think it is a brilliant display of the agility for which the English language is famous. James Nicoll’s quote sums up this attribute best: "The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don't just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary." The reference which has set me on a COIN’dinista zeitgeist tear comes from Bernard Finel, “The Petraeus Problem,” [...]

  • [...] basically all the published work since supports this position as well. Well, not Broadwell’s hagiography of Petraeus, but books by more respectable journalists have, I think, shown this to be true, [...]

  • [...] (Paula Broadwell) who’d written a glowing bio of him (my brief review is here). Of course, the right-wingers see a conspiracy in this. But as far as I can tell, there is nothing [...]

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