The Many Talents of David Petraeus

Friday, 02 Sep 2011 10:01 AM

By Judith Miller

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David Petraeus spent his first day out of uniform doing something he rarely did during the last few years of his 37-year military career: He took the entire day off. He also escorted his sainted wife, Holly, a veteran of 23 moves during his army career, out to dinner. In fact, he’s taking the rest of the week off too, straight through Labor Day.

Except, of course, for the daily briefings he’s been getting for the last month. Those will continue. So, too, will the “prep sessions” he has been holding to prepare for his swearing-in and first meetings next Tuesday as the new director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

Welcome to what newly retired, four-star general David Petraeus calls downtime. If Wednesday’s literally star-studded retirement ceremony focused mostly on the past, Labor Day weekend is all about the future.

“Guess I've already transitioned to looking forward to the tremendous opportunity to serve that lies ahead,” he told me. “The Agency is a great organization with terrific people. I feel enormously privileged to have been given such a great chance to stay in the fight.”

For Petraeus, life is all about staying in the fight. His career is hardly ending; it’s morphing, his battle ground shifting. But his many wars — boots-on-the-ground and bureaucratic — are destined to continue. He knows that his greatest challenges may lie ahead.

In his tribute to fellow Princeton grad school vet, Deputy Defense Secretary William J. Lynn III stressed Petraeus’ impressive range of talents. Cadet Petraeus had “distinguished himself at West Point,” in whose shadow he was raised, the only son of a librarian and a sea captain father, a civilian family within a military world. Soldier Petraeus “stood out in every command he held,” Lynn said. “Doctor Petraeus was commissioned as a political strategist at Princeton. Professor Petraeus taught on the faculty at West Point.

"Strategist Petraeus made his re-make of Army doctrine with a little manual on counterinsurgency you might have heard of,” Lynn joked, referring to “Field Manual 3-24, Counterinsurgency,” which Petraeus had famously produced while at the Combined Arms Center at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Within a week of its release, reported Yochi J. Dreazen, in the “National Journal,” the manual had been downloaded over 1.5 million times.

Published by University of Chicago Press, the manual clung to the best seller list for weeks, further enhancing his resume as a best-selling author and what Dreazden called a “celebrity general.”

“Only David Petraeus could take a military manual and make it a great stocking stuffer,” said Navy Admiral Mike Mullen, now chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the only other speaker at Wednesday’s ceremony.

For his last military act, Lynn noted, Petraeus had fought for and implemented the “surge” of forces in Iraq. The surge (coupled with the Sunni Muslim “Awakening,” the revolt against al-Qaida in Iraq) had “delivered Iraq from the clutches of sectarian violence,” Lynn said. In Afghanistan, a similar boost of U.S. forces had given the Afghan people “a fighting chance to determine their future.”

It was his stewardship of these “dangerous and complex wars,” Lynn added, eschewing words like “victory” in such wars, that had reshaped how such conflicts were being fought, and by whom. By 2008, the results in Iraq were clear enough to prompt then Defense-Secretary Robert Gates to call Petraeus “the preeminent soldier-scholar-statesman of his generation.”

Such praise is often cheap in Washington, however, and provokes envy. When the time came for Barack Obama to select a new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, which Elisabeth Bumiller, of The New York Times, reported was the job Petraeus had really wanted, the president chose Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the Army’s current chief of staff, a quieter, less public, less celebrated military man. It was then that General Petraeus raised the idea of going to the C.I.A. as its director, she reports.

Close friends of Petraeus, and there are relatively few, say it is not clear that he would have preferred the Joint Chiefs job over that of CIA director.

Yes, one friend suggested, Petraeus was disappointed and even slightly hurt that Obama had not selected him for the top military post — though he could not have been surprised since it had been clear for some time that the White House had no great love, and perhaps more than a little political fear of Petraeus.

But he had also seen that the military turn-around too often credited solely to the surge in Iraq was not likely to be repeated in Afghanistan, a war-lord-ridden, tribally driven kleptocracy. In his public statements and testimony to Congress, Petraeus repeatedly warned that the surge-induced progress in Afghanistan was “fragile and temporary.” Would he have relished being the soldier asked to rebut congressional laments about the military’s inability to make the surge-driven progress permanent in Afghanistan?

A voracious reader with a built-in barometer for prevailing political winds, he also had to have sensed — even from Kabul — the fierce budgetary pressures building in Washington, the financial down-sizing that seems to lie ahead for the military.

Petraeus may not have welcomed the idea of being the military’s top uniformed defender against a budgetary onslaught on the Potomac — a White House hungry for arenas in which to appear fiscally responsible and a Congress politically desperate for spending cuts and deficit reductions. He may not have hungered to be the soldier designated to defend Washington’s lurch towards ugly, perhaps mission-jeopardizing slashes in military spending and hence, capability.

Defenders of the Pentagon’s budget and protectors of its mission have begun rallying their own political forces to protect the armed forces from a rumored trillion-dollar cut over the next decade being planned in the warrens of the Office of Management and Budget and by congressional bean counters on Capitol Hill.

In “The Wounded Giant,” an online book being published by Penguin this November, Michael O’Hanlon, of the Brookings Institution, warns that such budget slashing goes way beyond the $400-500 billion, decade-long reductions that former defense secretary Robert Gates said the military could just about afford. Such cuts would wreck the military’s ability to wage one war and the two-to-three smaller support missions that O’Hanlon calls the “irreducible minimum requirements” of a robust American military capability.

Would Gen. Petraeus have relished being the top military officer asked to preside over such budgetary mayhem? Would he have enjoyed witnessing the forced financial unraveling of the counterinsurgency capability he struggled for so long and hard to build? By the end of the year, almost all American forces will be out of Iraq. By next summer, the army will have 33,000 fewer troops in Afghanistan, if the president’s drawdown targets are met.

Pentagon watchers in Washington noted that while Petraeus was not required to retire from the Army to take on the intelligence job, he chose to do so, drawing a firm line between his military and civilian careers.

Indeed, while some Petraeus watchers predicted that he would concentrate in his new job on the Agency’s paramilitary side — its “Special Activities Division,” which carries out attacks in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia with enhanced coordination with the military’s Special Operations Forces — he apparently decided that the Agency’s non-military operations, its analytical branch, required his immediate focus. This is where Petraeus hopes to secure the most sweeping improvements, friends say.

Reviewing the agency’s sorry analytical record, it is hard to disagree. The CIA’s analysts failed to predict the collapse of the Soviet Union or the rise of al-Qaida as a threat to America. Its assessment of Iraq’s WMD capability was not only wrong, its tradecraft shockingly sloppy, concluded the committees of legislators and independent experts who studied its product.

Most recently, it failed to anticipate the Middle Eastern uprisings that became known as the Arab Spring, along with most other think tanks, academics, and yes, even most of us journalists.

But as John Barry argued in Newsweek last July, it is not clear that even retired Gen. Petraeus will be able to succeed in reshaping the agency as he has the U.S. military. Fierce resistance to change seems to be something of a source of pride within the agency’s insular, often intellectually stultifying intelligence directorate. Will director Petraeus be able to change such a culture?

“Coinvenistas” and other Petraeus fans have little doubt. They note that Petraeus spent much of his month in Washington prior to his confirmation hearings preparing for the job. He met or called every former CIA director, quietly meeting in person with former President George Bush.

He talked by phone with George Tenet. He got detailed briefings not only from area experts, but about the agency’s activities, its many strengths and glaring weaknesses from insiders like Michael Morell, a 31-year agency veteran who was George W. Bush’s intelligence adviser on Sept. 11th.

The mental and physical discipline that has served Petraeus so well throughout his military career — his legendary 10-mile morning runs and punishing push-and-pull-ups, his skeptical mind and determination to challenge conventions and conventional thinking — will serve him well at Langley, supporters say. He will succeed, they predict, because he will remain, in or out of uniform, a dauntingly determined “soldier.”

As Bill Lynn observed, quoting another gifted Army general, George Patton, “I fight where I am told, and I win where I fight.”

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