Obama Wanted a Petraeus. Buyer Beware.

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By Greg Jaffe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 11, 2009

It is hard not to look at Stanley McChrystal without seeing David Petraeus.

Both generals are fitness freaks, capable of running soldiers half their age into the ground. Within hours of taking command of faltering wars, both were vowing to remake their forces. "We must change the way we think, act and operate," McChrystal wrote in September instructions to his troops in Afghanistan. He was practically channeling Petraeus, circa 2007, who challenged his troops in Iraq to adopt a new "warrior-builder-diplomat" mind-set.

These similarities were a big selling point for the Obama administration, which this summer decided it wanted its own Petraeus -- a creative wartime commander and gifted manager who could push the military in Afghanistan into unfamiliar realms, such as economic development and tribal politics.

But the past week showed that a Petraeus redux comes with some heavy baggage -- for McChrystal as well as the White House. As the administration debated its strategy in Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and national security adviser James Jones publicly upbraided McChrystal, who is seeking a major increase in forces, for stating in a speech in London that a shift to a smaller U.S. presence and a narrower focus on killing al-Qaeda terrorists would be "shortsighted."

These days, the last thing that the White House and the Pentagon brass want is a general who can bypass the chain of command; a general who speaks directly to the president; a general who emerges as the dominant American voice on the war. The last thing they want, in other words, is another Petraeus.

In the closing days of his second term, a weakened President George W. Bush vowed repeatedly that when it came to Iraq, he was going to listen to his general on the ground. Bush spoke directly with Petraeus via video teleconference once a week and made it known to all that the general's opinions on the war carried more weight than anyone else's in Washington. Petraeus's influence with the White House and with lawmakers who flocked to Baghdad for face-to-face briefings redefined the role of a modern wartime commander.

President Obama is determined to deal with his generals in a different fashion. "When someone like General McChrystal strays in the gray zone between war and politics and then gets his hand slapped, it reflects the effort to begin redrawing clear boundaries," said retired Col. Andrew J. Bacevich, a military historian at Boston University.

Petraeus's rise was a bit of an anomaly, the perfect marriage of a wounded president and a general well prepared to navigate Washington war politics. He had spent a huge chunk of his career, by Army standards, at the elbow of powerful four-star generals at the Pentagon. Even when he wasn't working for an influential boss, he still finagled a ringside seat to watch Washington's inner workings.

As a lowly major and academic fellow at Georgetown University researching on a paper on peacekeeping, Petraeus wormed his way into key White House meetings on the eve of the U.S. intervention in Haiti in 1994. "Who are you?" President Bill Clinton's deputy national security adviser, Sandy Berger, barked at him during one session in the Situation Room. Petraeus sheepishly explained that he'd come at the invitation of Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott.

Petraeus's political instincts carried over to Iraq. When a vacuum emerged after the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime, Petraeus rushed to fill it. As the commander of the 101st Airborne Division in the northern city of Mosul in 2003, he spent a week negotiating with feuding Shiites, Sunnis, Kurds and Yezidis to pull off Iraq's first elections. Shortly thereafter, the Coalition Provisional Authority, which was running the country, issued an order to commanders banning any more balloting.

Petraeus took it upon himself to negotiate with Syria and Turkey to exchange Iraqi oil for badly needed electricity. The Syria deal came as a surprise even to then-Secretary of State Colin Powell, who in late 2003 was trying to freeze out Damascus. But, because it was already inked, no one countermanded it. The joke in the 101st was that Petraeus ran the only division in the Army with its own foreign policy. In Baghdad and at the Pentagon, some of Petraeus's detractors began to refer to him as "King David." But even his critics conceded that he got things done.

In the summer and fall of 2007, when it looked as if Congress would pull back funding for Iraq or try to cap troop levels, Petraeus became the public face of the conflict. It was a role that his predecessor, Gen. George W. Casey Jr., had resisted, and one that made many of Petraeus's fellow generals uncomfortable. Even Petraeus privately expressed to friends unease about his high profile. But he also embraced it, reasoning that it was the only way to ensure that the president's war strategy, which was under attack in the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill, would be properly supported and executed.


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