WSJ Monday, November 12, 2012 A 17
Many public figures resort to 'spinning' to stay in power when their human failings are exposed. The general held himself to another standard.
By BING WEST
David H. Petraeus was destined to be a general. Fiercely competitive and upwardly mobile, he mixed indefatigable energy with unfailing courtesy. At West Point, he wooed and married the daughter of the superintendent. He won the top three prizes at the tough Infantry Ranger School. He received his Ph.D. from Princeton. In command positions, he issued clear mission directives to his subordinates. He cultivated the press and intellectuals, promptly responding to emails with succinct observations. A believer in "big ideas," Gen. Petraeus was an idealist determined to succeed. In any command or staff position, he performed superbly.
If he had been a peacetime general, he would not have had the renown to be named the head of the CIA—or to attract the world's attention with his resignation in the wake of an extramarital affair. America judges its generals based on how they perform in war: George Washington in the Revolutionary War, Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee in the Civil War, Dwight Eisenhower and George Marshall in World War II, Creighton Abrams in Vietnam, Colin Powell in the 1991 Gulf War, et al. [I would add Generals George S. Patton and Douglas MacArthur here]. Gen. Petraeus joins their ranks as a memorable leader because of his performance in the Iraq War.
In 2003, throwing out Saddam Hussein's regime had been easy. But four years of flailing against insurgent bands followed. By early 2007, a weary America was watching Iraq disintegrate into a Shiite-Sunni civil war. Gen. Petraeus, by then with three stars and two previous tours in Iraq, had written a field manual on counterinsurgency, arguing that our warriors should be nation builders, focused particularly upon protecting the people rather than killing the enemy. Rejecting the reservations of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he boldly urged President Bush to surge six more U.S. brigades into the fight. Mr. Bush agreed, and appointed Gen. Petraeus as the commander.
The tide in Iraq was changing as he arrived. In the province of Anbar, the Marines had hammered the Sunni insurgents for three years, while al Qaeda extremists had subjugated the Sunni tribes. Feeling they were caught between the hammer and the anvil, the tribal sheiks rebelled against al Qaeda and allied with the Marines. Grasping the opportunity, Gen. Petraeus aligned American companies with Sunni neighborhood watches in a dozen provinces, driving out Sunni radicals and preventing raids by Shiite militias.
Every U.S. battalion was given four tasks: provide security, fund projects, aid governance, and institute the rule of law. Security required armed force; the other tasks were nation building. Within two years, Iraq had stabilized militarily and Gen. Petraeus became the first heroic American general of the 21st century.
In 2010, Gen. Petraeus took command in Afghanistan, and a year later became the director of the CIA. His efforts in Afghanistan had no lasting influence, where his nation-building strategy foundered. It wasn't his fault. A duplicitous Pakistan harbored both al Qaeda and the Taliban. Inside Afghanistan, the medieval Pashtun tribes—the heart of the Taliban movement—refused to support a corrupt central government. In selecting Hamid Karzai to lead the country a decade ago, we made the wrong choice. No foreigner, regardless of rank, could compensate for feckless internal leadership.
Gen. Petraeus's concept of nation building as a military mission probably will not endure. Our military can train the armed forces of others (if they are willing) and, in Afghanistan, we can leave behind a cadre to destroy nascent terrorist havens. But American soldiers don't know how to build Minneapolis or Memphis, let alone Muslim nations.
What, then, did Gen. Petraeus accomplish that deserves admission to the pantheon of military heroes? The answer is clear: He saved America from an appalling disgrace—the bloody disintegration of Iraq. He ran a high risk and was proved correct in believing that the Sunnis, given our protection, would turn against the extremists in their midst. Thanks to boldness and a firm belief in his strategic vision, he won the shooting war in Iraq.
The Obama administration eventually lost the geopolitical war in 2011 by pulling out all U.S. troops. That left a fractious Iraq riven by violence under the control of a sectarian, spiteful prime minister sympathetic to Iran. The Obama administration snatched political defeat from the jaws of the military victory achieved by Gen. Petraeus.
The Petraeus family has served our nation selflessly, year after year. Like the Roman general Marcus Aurelius, Gen. Petraeus has spent most of the past 10 years in the field. His wife travels constantly to U.S. bases, teaching soldiers and their spouses how to take care of finances. His son turned down lucrative jobs and chose to serve, like his dad, as a combat grunt.
Stand back from these details for a moment. Think of how public figures, including past presidents, resort to "spinning" to stay in power when their human failings were exposed. Gen. Petraeus could have followed that path. President Obama and senators suggested as much. The country needed a man of proven skills; power players stay in the game. With the usual spin, he could have stayed.
But Gen. Petraeus refused to stay, and he refused to conceal why he was leaving. In an era where power and fame define success, it made no difference to him that he was a general instead of a corporal. He had let down his standards.
His legacy is twofold. As a general, he won a war. As a man, he took responsibility. In his common humanity and his exceptional dedication to his ideals, he showed nobility.
Mr. West is a former assistant secretary of defense and combat infantryman. His books include histories of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; his most recent book, "Into the Fire," is co-wrote with Sgt. Dakota Meyer, recipient of the Medal of Honor.