Was Petraeus Insufficiently Blood Thirsty? The New York Times’ Absurd Op-Ed

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Nov. 19 2012 4:38 PM

A Phony Critique of Petraeus

What the New York Times got wrong about the scandal.

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The key to Truscott’s confusion may lie in his recollection of a conversation he had with Petraeus in the fall of 2003, when the general, then commander of the 101st Airborne Division, was occupying Mosul in northern Iraq:

One of the first questions I asked him was what his orders had been. Was he ordered to “take Mosul,” I asked. No answer. How about “Find Mosul and report back”? No answer. Finally, I asked him if his orders were something along the lines of “Go to Mosul!” He gave me an almost imperceptible nod. It must have been the first time an American combat infantry division had been ordered into battle so casually.

This is a fair enough portrait, but Truscott draws precisely the wrong conclusion. The American leaders at the time were clueless. President George W. Bush had no aim other than to topple Saddam Hussein; he had no idea what to do after that. Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the top U.S. military commander in Iraq, had no strategy or campaign plan for the occupation. True, Petraeus had no orders on what to do in Mosul, but what Truscott misses is that he devised his own orders—he set up a new political system, vetted candidates, got the local economy going again, reopened the university, reopened borders with Syria: He stabilized Mosul in a way that no other division commander was stabilizing his area of operation. And he did this by more than merely “buying the loyalties of various factions,” as Truscott charges.

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Truscott then makes a claim that might be interesting if it weren’t encased in so many inaccuracies—that Petraeus’ methods in Mosul “were the kinds of things that prolong wars” rather than win them. In one sense, Truscott might be right: If Iraq’s political factions were ultimately uninterested in reconciling with one another, Petraeus’ strategy may indeed have merely stretched out the conflict and deferred the reckoning.

But three points need to be made here. First, Petraeus had no way of knowing this at the time; both in Mosul and later, in 2007, as U.S. commander in Iraq, he saw his goal as giving the factions “breathing space,” creating a “zone of security,” where they might reach a settlement in peace. It’s not his fault that the factions had no interest in reaching such a settlement. Second, for as long as he was in command, Petraeus succeeded at what he set out to do, if only tactically and in the short term. In retrospect, a case can be made that it may have been wiser to pull out after Saddam fell, to let the Iraqis find their own way. But those weren’t Petraeus’ orders; whatever else might be said of him, he accomplished a great deal with what he had. Finally, America’s big mistake in Iraq was invading it in the first place—and neither Petraeus nor any other general had anything to do with that decision.

No question, over the past decade, a mystique has shrouded David Petraeus, and its chief sculptor has been Petraeus himself. As a young officer, his key mentors—John Galvin and Marcel “Bruno” Bigeard, both fighting and thinking generals—instructed him in the art of myth making for the purpose of building the troops’ loyalty and the population’s support for the mission. The mystique cracked on Nov. 9, when revelations of the affair with Paula Broadwell forced him to resign—and it has shattered into shards, as the affair’s backstory turned more and more baroquely bizarre.

But not all myths are hollow. Sometimes their cores have real substance. Petraeus isn’t a god, but that doesn’t mean he’s a devil or a clown. One bright side of his demystification might be that we can finally have a debate about foreign policy and modern warfare—the merits, limits, and drawbacks of drones; the relevance of counterinsurgency doctrine; the appropriate place of counterterrorism—unencumbered by the politics of personality.

Meanwhile, Lucian Truscott IV’s snarky stab at iconoclasm says more about the hankering for a black-and-white playbook of villains and heroes than about the real world of complex grays.