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To Sir, With No Love: Professor Petraeus Misses the Mark

Yet despite a record of folly, the former general is treated like Sun Tzu bestowing wisdom on his adorants.
2019 Concordia Americas Summit - Day 1

He’s a man who looks professionally cast for his job. He’s got an aura of respectability. He appears comfortable discussing any subject; his voice never betrays any doubt. One would guess he is calm and collected during a crisis. But he’s still happy to indulge in a bit of humble bragging—leisurely joking about his alma mater and his devastation that Brad Pitt didn’t play him in a movie.

You can almost understand the media’s love affair with the general who lost two wars. But forgive it? No.

David Petraeus is, in the words of Gilbert and Sullivan, the very model of a modern major general. Or, in the less ginger language of former Admiral William J. Fallon, an “ass-kissing little chickenshit.” Petraeus’s 37 years in the U.S. military include overseeing the 2007 Iraq war troop surge, heading U.S. Central Command, and a year as the top soldier in Afghanistan. He capped off this career with a stint as CIA director that ended in an ignominious resignation and an embarrassing conviction for sharing state secrets of the highest classification with his mistress, who was stripped of her rank of lieutenant colonel as a result. He, however, lost no stars and receives a pension of about $200,000 a year. 

Forgiven by the foreign policy “Blob” before his parole was even complete, Petraeus’ hasty rehabilitation shows that it doesn’t matter if you lose in Baghdad and Kabul so long as you win in D.C. and New York. And Petraeus has shuttled back and forth between both places, plus around the world, basking in his new role as warrior-sage.

For example, earlier this month, speaking with neoconservative intellectual Eliot A. Cohen at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, Petraeus described the five lessons he’s learned from conducting the war on terror. Claiming they come from “considered judgment and analysis,” in reality, they’re part and parcel of the same losing manual our generals have been reading for 20 years. 

Lesson one: “Islamist extremists will exploit ungoverned spaces in the Muslim world. It’s not a question of if, it’s a question of when and how bad is it.”

If this is known, then why has the United States spent the entire war on terror creating as many ungoverned spaces in the Middle East as possible? The answer is that, as was recounted by General Wesley Clark in 2007, after the September 11 attacks, there was a “policy coup” in which “some hard-nosed people took over the direction of American foreign policy and they never bothered to inform the rest of us.” Clark says he was informed in October 2001 that the plan going forward was to strike seven countries in five years: Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Iran.

You don’t need to whitewash the wickedness of Saddam Hussein or Bashar al-Assad or the Ayatollah to understand that none of them have supported the kind of Sunni jihadist terrorism that came to American shores. So what was the rationale behind this (ongoing) strategy?

Lesson two: “You actually have to do something about it. This is not a problem you can study until it goes away. You can engage in paralysis by analysis. And moreover, Las Vegas rules do not apply in these areas. What happens there doesn’t stay there. They tend to spew violence, instability, extremism, and a tsunami of refugees….”

The first thing the U.S. ought to do is stop supporting the terrorism it purports to fight. The biggest example of this was Operation Timber Sycamore during the Syrian Civil War. From 2012 to 2017, the Obama administration gave training and billions of dollars in weaponry to Islamist rebels whom they knew to be in alliance with the al-Nusra Front (al-Qaeda’s Syrian franchise).

Petraeus should be familiar with this program, since as CIA director, he oversaw its predecessor: from 2011 to 2012, the agency operated a ratline from Libya to Turkey to Syria, giving guns pilfered from Moammar Gaddafi’s armories to the same Islamist rebels. Going a step further, in late 2015, Petraeus proposed cutting out the middle man entirely and just giving the guns to al-Nusra! 

How much of the Islamic State’s existence is a direct repercussion of America being one of its early benefactors? While Petraeus argues we should so much more, he should take a page out of the surgeon’s notebook and first pledge to do no harm. 

Lesson three: “The U.S. generally has to lead, but we want to have as big a coalition as we can get, and that coalition should include Muslim countries, for whom this is an existential struggle, not something less than that.”

Besides the self-gratification of its leaders, why should America take the lead when there are so many alternatives? What did the United States gain from its war on the Islamic State that it wouldn’t have gotten had it just sat back and left the job to the Kurdish Peshmerga, the Syrian Arab Army, the Iranian Shiite militias, and the Russian air force? I’ll tell you what we lost: billions more dollars, dozens more soldiers, and thousands more foreign civilians for whose deaths we hold moral culpability. 

If an action is in the primary interest of a state, it’s usually carried out. Eliminating ISIS was a necessity for the Kurds, Iran, the Syrian government, and Russia. Going forward, the United States ought to make better use of its numbers sheet and see if it’s not cheaper to outsource its goals. 

Lesson four: “You have to acknowledge a real paradox: and that is, you cannot counter terrorists like Al Qaeda and the Islamic State with just counterterrorist force operations. In other words, you can’t just drone strike or Delta Force raid out of this problem. …If you really want to deal with the problem, you have to have a comprehensive approach. A comprehensive, civil-military campaign such as the one that Ambassador Ryan Crocker and I had the privilege to oversee during the surge in Iraq, but, and this is massive but, but without us doing all of the fighting on the frontlines….”

A decade later and Petraeus is still attached to the idea that his surge could have worked if the Shia government in Baghdad hadn’t let him down by refusing to reconcile with the Sunni minority. In actuality, once the U.S. military had helped clear the capital city of Sunni inhabitants, the Shia majority had no incentive to make any concessions to western tribesman. This was going to be the result whether U.S. forces withdrew in 2011 or 2061. 

During his conversation, Petraeus became enthusiastic describing the “surge of ideas” he oversaw in Iraq, which was “180 degrees different from what we were doing prior to the surge.” He’s referring to his abandonment of search and destroy in favor of the clear-hold-build strategy. 

Under Petraeus’s counterinsurgency manual, really a warmed-over version of Vietnamization, the U.S. military would go from defending the republic and following the national interest to foreign nation building and revolutionizing societies at the point of a gun. The problem is, just like in Vietnam, you can’t win the hearts and minds of those you’re bombing. 

The counterinsurgency strategy has been constructed on the premise of permanency. Once you occupy a neighborhood, you have to stay until the locals either love you or at least accept that you’re not going away. Which leads into the final lesson.

Lesson five: “This fight is not the fight of a decade, much less a few years. It’s the fight of a generation or more. And therefore, you have to have a sustained commitment. But we know in a democracy you can only sustain a commitment if it’s sustainable in terms of blood and treasure; the expenditure of those.”

The receipt of David Petraeus’s generational warfare currently totals 7,000 soldiers in flag-draped coffins, nearly $6 trillion added to the national debt, and a region wracked by chaos. The American people, including a majority of the troops Petraeus commanded, have seen this bill of sale and regret their purchase. Even Eliot Cohen realizes this, observing that at the moment the argument for non-intervention “is much more successful and much more persuasive.” 

“Look, nobody understands the frustrations of forever wars more than the individual that commanded both of them at their peak,” insists Petraeus. Or perhaps nobody understands them less. 

Hunter DeRensis is a reporter for The National Interest, and a regular contributor to The American Conservative. Follow him on Twitter @HunterDeRensis.