By Linda Killian, Thomas Jefferson Street blog
Just hours after returning to the United States on an overnight flight from Afghanistan Tuesday, General David Petraeus appeared at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars to talk about the U.S. Central Command he heads and U.S. efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, looking not the least bit jet lagged.
Petraeus is intelligent, well spoken and polished, and his comments about the challenges facing the United States sounded more like those of a politician or diplomat than a general. He often speaks about his job in political terms and is keenly aware of the local political pressures, which have a huge impact on successful military outcomes.
He talks about having “a constituency” in Iraq and Afghanistan of local residents who will “tolerate” the U.S. presence as long as they believe their future and those of their families will be improved by it. He also has a keen instinct and appreciation for the essential public relations aspects of his job and says the U.S. military should always “be first with the truth” when it comes to their actions abroad.
Petraeus has frequently been compared to warrior/president Dwight Eisenhower and has for years been mentioned as a potential presidential candidate. But the comparisons to Eisenhower may actually do the 57-year-old Petraeus a bit of a disservice.
Petraeus, a true warrior/scholar, graduated at the top of his class at West Point and has a Ph.D. from Princeton, where the title of his dissertation was, “The American Military and the Lessons of Vietnam.” He has a reputation for courting not only his military and executive branch bosses but members of Congress and the media, who seem to largely be Petraeus fans.
Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham told the New York Times last fall that Petraeus “understands the Congress better than any military commander I’ve ever met.” According to those who know him and have served with him, Petraeus is fiercely competitive, although he is smaller than one might expect at five feet nine inches tall, with a slight but athletic build.
When George W. Bush appointed Petraeus to take over command of U.S forces in Iraq, he was running an Army think tank at Fort Leavenworth and working on a rewrite of the Army’s field manual on counter-insurgency operations. He enlisted the input of Harvard University’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy as well as journalists and political scientists and other distinguished military thinkers. The final product, published in 2006, was actually reviewed on the front page of the Times's Sunday Book Review.
The manual featured as much or more politics as it did military strategy, with an emphasis on building countries rather than destroying them and with chapter titles like “Defusing a Confrontation,” “Lose Moral Legitimacy, Lose the War.” Petraeus made it clear in his remarks at the Wilson Center that his thoughts on successful overseas counter-insurgency operations haven’t changed and that it takes more than a military presence to succeed in such a situation. “You can’t kill or capture your way out of the problem.”
He is more than comfortable speaking in public. When his introduction at the Wilson Center included the caveat that the session would be off the record, Petraeus quickly reversed that suggestion as soon as he stepped to the microphone and acknowledged that of course the session, which was being webcast, was on the record.
He gives the impression of being candid and forthright but never reveals too much or speaks impulsively. Rather than giving a speech, Petraeus said he wanted to take questions from the audience, but knowing they would focus on Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and his current responsibilities, he used a well prepared set of Power Point slides for his answers. And like any good politician, he turned his answers to the questions in the direction he had prepared.
Only Petraeus knows whether he harbors presidential ambitions and he has given no indication that he does. However, there are probably many Republicans who would welcome his candidacy. With the Republican Party becoming more narrow and extreme of late, the only chance of success the GOP has is to nominate someone with the kind of stature that means they would not be beholden to the party’s right-wing base. Someone like Petraeus.
According to a piece written by Steve Coll in the New Yorker in the fall of 2008, Petraeus is registered to vote as a Republican in New Hampshire and once described himself to a friend as a northeastern Republican, in the tradition of Nelson Rockefeller.
Whether he would decide to challenge his commander in chief remains to be seen. The two men have many similar traits including extreme intelligence, a willingness to be adaptive, and the ability to be calm under pressure.
But what all of the musings about Petraeus’s possible candidacy have overlooked is that he has a five year assignment as chief of the U.S Central Command overseeing 20 countries spreading from Egypt to Pakistan and including Iraq and Afghanistan. That commitment began in the fall of 2008 and as someone who has spent his entire life in the military, it seems unlikely Petraeus would leave before the job is finished in Afghanistan or his posting is complete.