Gen. Petraeus is garnering a place in history
by Ken Allard
There he was, this generation’s equivalent of George Marshall, the brilliant proconsul testifying before Congress to underline the improbable but now indisputable victory over al Qaida.
In military history, the turn-around David Petraeus has commanded in Iraq rivals MacArthur’s surprise landing at Inchon. For awhile, that master-stroke reversed the rising Chinese tide in the Korean conflict, although eventually it could only underline certain eternal questions in war. How do you deal with an enemy who can learn lessons? And how do you judge when the next objective might be a bridge too far?
An earlier and more attentive generation might have idolized Petraeus. This one barely grasps his victory and has no idea who he is. The Pew Research Center reports that 55 percent of the public cannot even recognize his name — roughly the same percentage as those who wish the war would just fade away.
For most Americans, Iraq is distant thunder, an unpleasant interruption troubling the nightly news. Even if war coverage finishes above the producer’s cut-line, the dots are rarely well connected for an audience in which military illiteracy is always a working assumption.
An example over the last fortnight has been the Shiite revolt in Basra and other parts of Iraq. Ever since Saddam’s overthrow, well armed sectarian militias have been a basic fact of Iraqi life — so much so that it once seemed as though the country might be partitioned along ethnic and religious lines: Kurd, Sunni and Shiite. The surge changed all that, particularly when reinforced by the recreated and resurgent Iraqi military — the key to any American exit strategy worthy of the name. The new correlation of forces created the stable platform on which both military and political progress might be made.
Those developments could first be seen in the astonishing Sunni uprising against al Qaida, although the logic was pure Machiavelli: Where tribalism reigns, simply become the strongest, meanest tribe in the neighborhood.
Similarly, the authors of the new counterinsurgency strategy also seemed to have learned something from the Untouchables: When the enemy sends three of yours to the hospital, send five of his to the morgue. But al-Qaida clearly understood what the media and their notoriously fickle audiences did not: Americans had finally become serious about winning.
Victory has its own logic, eventually prompting the long overdue fight against the Shiite militias. However clumsy and ill-timed by the Maliki government, however uneven the skills of the adolescent Iraqi military, the assault against Shiite strongholds was exactly what was so loudly demanded on Capitol Hill this week: An unmistakable harbinger of Iraqi political progress. But not surprisingly, the language and logic were quintessentially Middle Eastern: Win the street-fight first and political reconciliation follows.
Petraeus may eventually take his place in history as neither a Marshall nor a MacArthur but instead as an Eisenhower. However that may turn out, it was embarrassing this week to see just how profoundly the military institution outclasses and outperforms its political masters. Hillary Clinton whined endlessly about an “orderly withdrawal,” Barack Obama opined about “endpoints,” while John McCain repeated the obvious about snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.
Sen. Richard Lugar, always a source of wisdom, put things in the proper historical context by quoting from the recent testimony of retired Maj. Gen. Robert Scales, former commandant of the Army War College: “In a strange twist of irony for the first time since the summer of 1863, the number of American ground soldiers available is determining policy rather than policy determining how many troops we need. The only point of contention is how precipitous will be the withdrawal.”
Think about that. Attacked at home on 9-11 by the deadliest enemy since the Civil War, we were called not to national sacrifice but to return to the shopping malls. An uncommitted nation drafted dollars rather than its sons and daughters.
Too intimidated even to raise the issue of national service, we now engage in the bovine contemplation of retreat as “change.” While hoping our enemies won’t notice that self-deception, rather than baseball, has become the national pastime.
Retired Col. Ken Allard is an executive-in-residence at UTSA. E-mail him at Warheads6@aol.com.