General Petraeus wins a battle in Washington-if not in Baghdad.
IN COMMON PARLANCE, the phrase "political general" is an epithet, the inverse of the warrior or frontline soldier. In any serious war, with big issues at stake, to assign command to a political general is to court disaster-so at least most Americans believe. But in fact, at the highest levels, successful command requires a sophisticated grasp of politics. At the summit, war and politics merge and become inextricably intertwined. A general in chief not fully attuned to the latter will not master the former.
George Washington, U.S. Grant, and Dwight D. Elsenhower were all "political generals" in the very best sense of the term. Their claims to immortality rest not on their battlefield exploitsWashington actually won few battles, and Grant achieved his victories through brute force rather than finesse, while Ike hardly qualifies as a field commander at all-but on the skill they demonstrated in translating military power into political advantage. Each of these three genuinely great soldiers possessed a sophisticated appreciation for war's political dimension.
David Petraeus is a political general. Yet in presenting his recent assessment of the Iraq War and in describing the "way forward," Petraeus demonstrated that he is a political general of the worst kind-one who indulges in the politics of accommodation that is Washington's bread and butter but has thereby deferred a far more urgent political imperative, namely, bringing our military policies into harmony with our political purposes.
From the very beginning of the Iraq War, such harmony has been absent. The war's military and political aspects have been badly out of synch. (In this regard, the hackneyed comparisons between Iraq and Vietnam are tragically apt.) The failure to plan for an occupation, the wildly inflated expectations of Iraq's rapid transformation into a liberal democracy, Donald Rumsfeld's stubborn refusal to acknowledge the insurgency's existence until long after it had begun, the deeply flawed kick-down-thedoor campaign that ensued once Rumsfeld could no longer deny reality: all of these meant that from the outset, the exertions of U.S. troops, however great, tended to be at odds with our stated political intentions. Our actions were counterproductive.
The Petraeus-Crocker hearings found Petraeus in a position to resolve that problem. Over the previous eight months, a discredited president had effectively abdicated responsibility for managing the war. "I trust David Petraeus" became George W. Bush's mantra, suggesting an astonishing level of presidential deference. Sometime in early 2007, the task of formulating basic strategy for Iraq had effectively migrated from Washington to Baghdad, passing from the office of the commander in chief to the headquarters of the senior field commander. The president made it clear that he intended to takes his cues from his general. Military judgment would inform, even determine, political decisions.
The general has now made his call, and President Bush has endorsed it: the , surge having succeeded (so at least we are assured), it will now be curtailed. The war will continue, albeit on a marginally smaller scale. As events develop, it just might become smaller still. Only time will tell.
Petraeus has chosen a middle course, carefully crafted to cause the least amount of consternation among various Washington constituencies he is eager to accommodate. This is the politics of give and take, of horse trading, of putting lipstick on a pig. Ultimately, it is the politics of avoidance.
A political general in the mold of Washington or Grant would have taken a different course, using his moment in the spotlight not to minimize consternation but to stir it up to the maximum extent. He would have capitalized on his status as man of the hour to oblige civilian leaders, both in Congress and in the executive branch, to do what they have not done since the Iraq War began-namely, their jobs. …