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There is one celebrity with the makings of a national hero, someone who has the qualities that might carry him right into the White House. It is David Petraeus. He is almost universally credited with the brilliant achievement of saving American honor and gaining an approximation of ‘victory’ in Iraq. President Obama himself is in awe of this warrior intellectual to whom he defers on all matters in the Greater Middle East. Petraeus’ mythic standing is a perfect example of how the compelling demand for a hero creates the illusion that indeed a savior has arrived. The so-called ‘surge’ for which Petraeus takes unabashed credit did not change anything fundamental in Iraq. The record is clear that the decline in violence, sectarian and anti-American, was due to three factors independent of our actions. They were: the emergence among the Sunni militants of the sawa’h movementthat turned on al-Qaeda in Iraq for their own tribal and cultural reasons; the Sunnis defeat by the Shi’ites in the civil war of 2005-2007; Iranian political intervention to persuade Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army to stand down so as to strengthen Prime Minister Maliki’s hand in the Iraqi-U.S. negotiations on a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA). Iran won its bet as Maliki indeed did turn the tables on Petraeus et al in Washington, severely restricting the American military’s presence in Iraq. All this was in the works well before the surge troops arrived, troops that never got beyond Baghdad. Moreover, Iraq today is an economic and political shambles, without a government for nine months, that teeters on the brink of a three-way civil war while Tehran’s influence mounts steadily.
Petraeus, the most political general America has seen since MacArthur, eagerly accepted the unearned laurels. He plays Presidents and public opinion with the deftness he describes in his counter insurgency writings as required to win the propaganda campaign against the native rebels. The doctrine has been far more effectively executed in Washington than in Afghanistan. In Fall 2004, he penned a series of articles lauding George Bush for his brilliant and bold leadership. In them, he proclaimed success in personally building an Iraqi army ready to take over responsibility for the country’s security. That was a complete fiction. In fact, Petraeus had made a series of blunders in recruiting a nearly 100% Shi’ite army composed mainly of party militia members. One of the very few capable units, the notorious Grey Wolves, took the lead in the bloody ethnic cleansing of Sunnis from Baghdad and surrounding districts. 6 years later, the Iraqi National Army of which their American general boasted is still a work in progress.
None of this is of interest to our leaders, to our media, to our public. Hero worship is blind – especially when there is a desperate emotional need to make the country feel good – or, at least, less bad – about its tragic, farcical intervention that tarnished every principle our Republic supposedly holds dear.
Petraeus understands all this. He plays his role skillfully. A shy half-smile for a people that prefers the boy next door variety of hero to the grim hard-edged military man we associate with the bad guys. A chest full of ribbons and medals that, to a few jaundiced eyes, makes him look like a caricatured Ruritanian Field Marshal. Army regulations on decorations say wear only 3 or wear them all. It is highly doubtful that Petraeus ever considered the former option. Modesty is not ‘in’ when it comes to American celebrity culture. Oddly, none of Petraeus’ decorations are for actions in combat. He never has seen combat; he never has been under fire. The very model of a modern hero-general. His big battles were won in the corridors of the Pentagon and the antechambers to presidential power. However confected Petraeus’ legendary triumphs are, they serve no less well as credentials that a sorely tried nation may take as signaling that here is the man who can set the country straight.
Audacity is the key to turning celebrity into hero status. Sarah Palin has it. So too does David Petraeus – in abundance. It took audacious nerve to throw himself into the 2004 presidential election while a serving officer, and do so by misrepresenting a key element in the Iraq debate – one for which he was individually responsible. It took audacity to maneuver to undercut two of his former commanding officers, General David McKiernan and Admiral William Fallon, whose careers met an untimely demise as a consequence. It took audacity to sideline Ambassador General Karl Eikenberry from last year’s critical Afghanistan strategic review (with the backing of Robert Gates) because his views ran against the grain of Petraeus’ own plans for being producer and director of SURGE II. It took audacity to qualify in public the White House’s publicly stated commitment to begin a withdrawal of troops by July 1 2011 within days of its being made. It has taken even greater audacity to plant stories via his aides that he has the necessary ‘moral authority’ in effect to reset the mission’s coordinates and resource needs as he deems fit. “Team Kabul,” as Petraeus refers to his Afghanistan staff, says openly that the July 2011 date is “meaningless.” It takes audacity to launch a campaign of village destruction in Kandahar province, cleansing the countryside of its civilian population, so as to chalk up a larger tally of enemy kills in time for the year end review – even if this means turning on its head the core precept of his own counterinsurgency doctrine. It takes audacity to spread word of a breakthrough success in the bringing of “a very high level Taliban leader,” Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, to Kabul for “promising” talks (literally as well as figuratively bringing him); and then when the ‘Taliban no. 2’ is exposed as an imposter, a Quetta shop keeper in fact, for Petraeus brazenly to offer the laconic comment that “I was not surprised.” And, to cap it all, to blame the British for the entire episode. That is the kind of audacity that points a general in the direction of the White House whose incumbent is your Commander-in-Chief.
By the way, the Editors of the New York Times have offered no comment on the ‘Taliban leader’ episode – a humiliation for Petraeus, a humiliation for America. Americans may pay it little attention; others in Kabul, Islamabad and Teheran do.
Michael Brenner is a Professor of International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh.