Sen. Harry Reid’s recent statements questioning the forthrightness of Gen. David Petraeus in reporting on conditions in Iraq are unseemly and unfair. Gen. Petraeus is a remarkable general, one of our best in modern American history, and his bravery and commitment to the nation in Iraq and elsewhere have been exemplary.
There is a legitimate question behind Mr. Reid’s statements. How much do we really want to trust the diagnosis of how a war is going to a man hired to go out and win that war, and a man in uniform sworn to obey his civilian leadership, no less? But before getting to that, it is important to take on Mr. Reid’s critique, because it is wrongheaded and should be retracted.
First, a word on Gen. Petraeus, whom I have known for 20 years since we were in doctoral studies together at Princeton. Those who also know him will not be surprised to learn that while most of us took the standard five or six years to finish our Ph.D.s at the Woodrow Wilson School, Gen. Petraeus was done in two. He has been a prodigy throughout his career, and admittedly a little lucky too, surviving a bullet to the upper right chest and a failed parachute among smaller mishaps.
Gen. Petraeus’ preparation for this job could not have been much better. He has experience with stability operations from the Balkans, including a stint leading an effort to capture war criminals that had a more daring and dangerous side to it than most of the peacekeeping in Bosnia. Of course, he commanded the 101st Air Assault division in the initial invasion of Iraq, and after a very brief respite at home returned to that country to train Iraqi security forces for the first year after sovereignty was restored in 2004. Then he spent a year and a half as the Army’s leading developer of doctrine at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., culminating in late 2006 in publication of a combined Army-Marine Corps manual on counterinsurgency that is highly regarded among theorists and practitioners in the field alike — and that provided much of the intellectual basis for President Bush’s new Iraq strategy.
The Senate majority leader should have been more careful in questioning the integrity of someone with such a track record. It is true Gen. Petraeus was too optimistic about the training program of Iraqi forces when he was in charge of it. But he was not alone in having undue confidence about the course of events in Iraq at that point. I would plead guilty myself, and many others had a hard time believing a civil war of the type we now see in Iraq was really likely then (even among those of us who had warned that Donald Rumsfeld and Co. were far too cavalier about the post-Saddam mission). That Iraqi civil war, more than technical issues in the training program, has compromised Iraq’s security force and the effort to stabilize Iraq and build a new democracy in general.
It is also true Gen. Petraeus chose to highlight the “normalcy” of much of Iraq in recent comments about how things are going there. Such comments were indeed a bit forward-leaning. But anyone who listens to Gen. Petraeus’ press conferences knows how concerned he remains about the levels of violence in Iraq, the difficulty of clamping down on al Qaeda bombings, the potential for Shia militias to stop exercising restraint soon in the face of those bombings, and most of all the lack of political progress among the Iraqi leadership. Gen. Petraeus has not been guilty of happy talk on Iraq before, and I doubt he will become guilty now.
Those who still doubt Gen. Petraeus’ ability to be dispassionate should review his confirmation hearings in January, when he spoke of huge problems in Iraq and an uncertain prognosis for its future. That was also evident to me last summer, when I visited him at Leavenworth and his first words as I walked in the door were “it’s not working, is it?” (I am only comfortable relaying the content of such a private conversation given that the president has now publicly recognized that last year’s strategy was failing too.)
All that said, there is one element of Mr. Reid’s concern that is fair. It is strange that we as a country would depend first and foremost on a military officer to decide how a war like that in Iraq is going. This is especially true given that David Petraeus is the general whose job it is to find a way despite the odds to win, or at least contain, that war. It is even truer, given that the type of war we are fighting is at least 50 percent a political effort, as Gen. Petraeus himself always underscores.
Part of the reason we depend so much on Gen. Petraeus, alas, is that the political leadership of this country has with few exceptions already made up its mind about what to do on Iraq. President Bush, whose legacy depends on the war’s outcome, cannot be viewed as a neutral or objective observer. He will probably support a continuation of the surge regardless.
And alas, the congressional leadership has a related problem, not least Mr. Reid with his earlier declarations that the war was already lost. He has also shown little interest as majority leader in helping devise a “Plan B” that might replace the admittedly flailing strategy of the president, short of nearly complete and nearly immediate withdrawal. That is his right, but if he already knows his mind on Iraq, and most other leaders in the Congress do too, Gen. Petraeus and U.S. ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker will have little help from political leaders in explaining to a discouraged but still open-minded nation what is happening in Iraq.
Rather than pillory Gen. Petraeus, Mr. Reid might better think of how we can get him some help by September when the big showdown is expected over the next Iraq spending bill. The best idea may be an Iraq Study Group II, led by the likes of former Sen. Sam Nunn and Retired Gen. Tony Zinni, that would help assess trends in Iraq and propose alternatives to the surge if needed (as seems likely). That, rather than a debate over whether Gen. Petraeus should in MacArthur-like fashion be expected to make our Iraq policy for us, would be a more productive avenue for the majority leader to pursue.
Michael O’Hanlon is senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.