The Cult of Petraeus
Jeff Huber | August 07, 2007
Secretary of State Robert Gates seemed sober and subdued on Meet the Press last Sunday. He was candid about the negative effect of Iraq's Parliament taking August off while American troops continue to fight in support of it, and of the Sunni ministers who resigned from Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's cabinet.
Gates kept things matter-of-fact as he admitted that a troop drawdown might take place by the end of this year, and he even managed to deftly deflect the issue of one of his subordinates accusing Hillary Clinton of assisting enemy propaganda efforts by allowing as how a lot of people are "on edge."
Gates did, however, say a thing or two that set off my warning system. He's starting to echo a memo that wraps the future of our Iraq adventure firmly around the personality of General David H. Petraeus, United States Army.
Supporters of Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, hail him as our best and brightest military officer and one who knows how to conduct counter-insurgency warfare. His detractors seem of the opinion that the thing Petraeus knows how to do best is make himself look good.
While some praise Petraeus for his administration of Mosul and Ninevah after major hostilities ceased, others blame him for allowing the insurgency to establish itself in those areas. His tenure as the officer in charge of training Iraqi troops and police clearly did not go well, despite his praise in a 2004 Washington Post article titled "Battling for Iraq" of the progress being made by the fledgling Iraqi security forces under his tutelage. Of the article, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman wrote "General Petraeus, without saying anything falsifiable, conveyed the totally misleading impression, highly convenient for his political masters, that victory was just around the corner." It also appears that Petraeus is at least partly responsible for arming of Iraq's insurgent groups. According to a recently released Government Accountability Office report, the Pentagon has lost track of roughly 190,000 AK-47 assault rifles and pistols that were issued to Iraqi forces while Petraeus was in charge of their training. More than 200,000 pieces of body armor and helmets distributed to Iraqis during that period are also unaccounted for.
As the U.S. four-star in charge of Iraq, Petraeus has shown a definite penchant for public relations, having staged a record setting Fourth of July reenlistment ceremony and a congressional shopping spree through an outdoor market in Baghdad, and treating journalists to an aerial tour of the city's soccer games. Pentagon correspondent Thomas E. Ricks, a Petraeus fan, refers to the general as a "force of nature," and often cites Petraeus's fondness for challenging soldiers half his age to one-arm pushup contests. Like Ricks, I'm impressed that a general in his mid-fifties can outdo fit men half his age in tests of physical fitness, but all the one-arm pushups in the world won't fix what's broken in Iraq.
It's not my purpose to run Petraeus down for the fun of it. Let's face it, nobody makes it to level he has reached in the military without making a few enemies or mistakes, or without a certain flair for flash and self promotion. My point is that General Petraeus may be able to walk on his hands, but he can't walk on water--as Mr. Bush seems to want us to think.
As Ricks noted in July, "Almost every time President Bush has defended his new strategy in Iraq this year, he has invoked the name of the top commander, Army Gen. David H. Petraeus." Mr. Bush calls Petraeus his "main man," and managed to fend off a revolt of congressional Republicans over the war by telling them "to wait to see what David has to say. I trust David Petraeus, his judgment."
That Mr. Bush trusts Petraeus's judgment should give us pause. Mr. Bush has an established track record of trusting the judgment of people who tell him what he wants to hear. This is not to imply that Petraeus is a spineless yes man. He probably does believe in the escalation strategy and in his own ability to pull it off. But beliefs and reality aren't always the same things. Believing to the depths of one's soul that the moon is made of green cheese doesn't make it so.
And so it is with our situation in Iraq. We've listened to four and a half years of "last throes" and "dead enders" and of criticism of the war described as "Henny Penny sky is falling" talk from the likes of Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld (who could both be described as "forces of nature" themselves).
Nobody in their right mind or otherwise expects that come mid-September, General Petraeus will tell Congress, "Sorry folks, I gave this surge thing my best shot, but it's time to yank the rug out from under it." No, Petraeus will walk in loaded with a full magazine of talking points about "signs of success" and the need for the legislature to give him more time to "get the job done."
The administration and its liegemen will point to Petraeus's testimony as "proof" that Congress needs to continue funding and supporting Mr. Bush's "Son of Stay the Course" strategy. They'll harangue the Democrats with the argument that says, "Hey, you confirmed him, now you have to do whatever he tells you to," and given what we've seen since January, the Democrats are likely to cave in.
The shame is that the Democrats will likely go wobbly because they can't understand or explain that decisions of whether or not to persist in conducting a war are not matters of strategy, they're matters of foreign policy, and in the United States, generals are not supposed to dictate policy, foreign, domestic or otherwise. And despite what Bush supporters would have you believe, the Constitution does not make foreign policy the exclusive privilege of the executive branch. It does quite the opposite.
Article II makes the president commander in chief of the military and allows him to receive foreign ambassadors and ministers. He appoints U.S. ambassadors to other nations, but they must be consented to by the Senate, as do "other officers of the United States" like David Petraeus. A president can make treaties, but those treaties must be approved by two-thirds supermajority of the Senate.
Article I gives the legislature authority, among other things, to punish "offenses against the law of nations," to declare war, to issue letters of marque and reprisal, to provide and regulate the military, and to call out the militia to repel invasions.
Nowhere does the Constitution dictate or allow Congress to cede its authority in matters of war and peace to the president's "main man." I hope the Democrats keep that in mind come September.