Gen. David Petraeus is an American hero who turned calamity into victory in Iraq. But his political pronouncements have been less than ideal; in fact they have been downright unhelpful and at times embarrassing. His recent comments regarding the murder of 12 U.N. workers is not the first time he’s sounded like an Ivy League professor.

As I wrote in January, his testimony concerning Israel set off a firestorm and required him to spend days walking back his comments:

Gen. David Petraeus [got] tied up in knots a while back when he suggested in written testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee that the Palestinian conflict “foments anti-American sentiment, due to a perception of U.S. favoritism for Israel” and that the failure to satisfy the Palestinians’ desire for a state poses a threat to our national interests. Petraeus quickly backpedaled (even going to the U.S. Holocaust Museum to make amends) with the help of loyal admirers. However, the damage was done. Israel’s most vicious critics ran with the argument. For example, a group of the worst of the Israel-bashing congressmen sent a letter last May to Obama parroting back the general’s gaffe.

But that was small potatoes compared to his remarks following the brutal murder of 12 United Nations workers in Afghanistan by Islamic fanatics. The Associated Press reported on the savagery:

Fearing for their lives, the U.N. workers dashed into a dark bunker hoping to escape the mob of Afghan protesters angry over the burning of a Quran by a Florida church. Hope wasn’t enough for three of them. They were hunted down and brutally slain — their bodies found later in three different parts of the compound in northern Afghanistan. . . By using a light, the attackers found the three other foreigners, then pulled them out and killed them one after the other. Two died of bullet wounds. The third was killed with a knife to the throat.

The massacre was provoked by Muslim clerics who whipped their followers into a frenzy over the burning of a Koran weeks earlier by crackpot Florida pastor Terry Jones. Bill Kristol on “Fox News Sunday” observed, “The guy is a total jackass and is acting without regard to the safety of our troops there. Having said that, it’s not an excuse, of course, for people to use this occasion — this as an excuse to kill U.N. workers or anyone else, including their fellow Muslims on the ground in Afghanistan.”

Unfortunately this moral distinction was lost on General Petraeus. Dorothy Rabinowitz of the Wall Street Journal editorial board observes:

This act was, the general declared in a video statement over the weekend, “hateful, extremely disrespectful, and enormously intolerant.” It had endangered American troops. He wanted, he announced, to condemn it in the strongest possible terms.

No one listening could doubt it. The general would go on to say more, but nowhere in any of that condemnation was it possible to find a mention of the merciless savagery that had taken place in the name of devotion to God and the Quran. Mark Sedwill, the NATO senior civilian representative who joined Gen. Petraeus in the statement, did manage to find a moment to murmur in passing that, of course, condolences were due to “everyone who has been hurt in the demonstrations.”

Moreover, in a Wall Street Journal interview, Gen. Petraeus spoke soberly of “in this case, perhaps, understandable passions.”

But what of, you know, the utterly unjustified brutality of Islamists who need no excuse for such butchery? Is this really UNDERSTANDABLE?

Rabinowitz has this take:

Displays of cringing deference to the forces loosed on the streets of Afghanistan over the weekend will not strengthen the American mission. They will stiffen the spines of the jihadists. Such displays count as victories, reassuring indicators that the threat of terrorism — mob terrorism, in this case — continues to work its wonders as a weapon of war. The sort that could send the commanding general of U.S forces in Afghanistan and a NATO official into swoons of apology while denouncing the pastor’s act. For a moment there during their joint statement it seemed altogether possible that one or another of them might begin rending his garments.

That none of these emotional proclamations included any judgment, moral or otherwise, about the criminality of the zealots who had just taken so many lives, speaks volumes to those at war with us — all of it encouraging to them.

To the president’s credit, he responded in a different manner in a statement released under his name:

I condemn in the strongest possible terms the attack on the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan today. Together with the American people, I offer my deepest condolences to those injured and killed, as well as to their loved ones. The brave men and women of the United Nations, including the Afghan staff, undertake their work in support of the Afghan people. Their work is essential to building a stronger Afghanistan for the benefit of all its citizens. We stress the importance of calm and urge all parties to reject violence and resolve differences through dialogue.

How then to explain Petraeus’s embarrassing deference to jihadist murderers? In light of his earlier gaffe on Israel I think there is something larger at play than a single incident and the desire to mollify the population around his troops. Petraeus is steeped in the ethos of what passes for elite foreign policy opinion and jargon. The notion that Israel’s “intransigence” poses a danger to the United States and that we mustn’t do things to get the jihadists “mad” at us are both straight from the same playbook used by State Department and liberal academics. We think of the Defense Department constantly at odds with State. And that is certainly the case on a range of turf issues. But modern generals are now ambassadors, negotiators and PR men. Unfortunately, in those roles they tend to mouth the very same pabulum that the State Department churns out.

And perhaps it is unfair to focus on the general. The perspective and the verbiage for an administration is not set by generals. In an administration that won’t use the term “Islamic fundamentalists” for fear of giving offense, should we expect anything better from our generals?