Generally Speaking

Generally Speaking
April 6th, 2008  
Team Infidel

Topic: Generally Speaking

Generally Speaking
New York Times
April 6, 2008 Over Here
By Steven Lee Myers
WASHINGTON — Iraq may be President Bush’s war, but Gen. David H. Petraeus has become its front man: a clear-speaking, politically savvy, post-Vietnam combat veteran with a Ph.D. from Princeton. Given the failures that have plagued the mission from the start, he may yet be Mr. Bush’s best hope for sustaining public support for an unpopular war once his presidency ends.
Now this astutely political general faces a season of political trials in the politically charged atmosphere of a presidential campaign — not to mention military ones, as illustrated by recent fighting in the southern city of Basra, which calls into question his efforts to prepare the Iraqi Army to stand on its own.
On Tuesday and Wednesday, General Petraeus will once again appear on Capitol Hill, testifying about the progress of a war that most Democrats and, polls suggest, most Americans think cannot end quickly enough.
Such is General Petraeus’s position that President Bush has repeatedly said that he would do nothing not recommended by his chosen commander in Iraq. And so successfully have the two men — civilian and soldier — managed to sustain the war in defiance of public opinion that some in the punditry and blogosphere have given voice to visions of him as a military man with a political future.
While a Draft Petraeus campaign today may be little more than wishful thinking on the right, the buzz alone, from conservatives who relish the idea to liberals who seem mostly to loathe it, illustrates an abiding tradition of American politics. Anyone tough enough to battle through the fog of war, it is generally assumed, ought to be able easily to cut through the hot air of American politics.
“I think the psyche is looking for a new Eisenhower,” said Steven Clemons of the New America Foundation, a bipartisan research organization in Washington, who was among the first to discuss the prospect of a Petraeus presidential bid in his Washington Note blog last August. He outlined a scenario that had a newly retired Petraeus recapturing the White House for the Republicans in 2012 from a failed Democratic administration.
The idea is as old as the Republic — from George Washington through Ulysses S. Grant to Dwight D. Eisenhower. But it is most fecund in times of war. Douglas MacArthur flirted with presidential politics in 1952 after President Truman fired him, and in 1968 there was buzz about William Westmoreland before Vietnam went all wrong.
The first Persian Gulf war in 1991 propelled Gen. Colin L. Powell, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to fame and later to a flirtation with running as a Republican. For the Democrats, the war over Kosovo in 1999 produced the campaign to draft the NATO commander, Gen. Wesley L. Clark, who ran unsuccessfully in 2004 for the Democratic nomination.
William Kristol, the editor of the conservative Weekly Standard and a New York Times Op-Ed columnist, said military officers are the subject of endless political fascination because their jobs, by definition, involve leadership. They tend to be highly educated, disciplined and, to use an overused phrase from today’s campaigns, “tested.” Some can even be charismatic.
Mr. Kristol joined the Petraeus bandwagon in a way when he suggested in a Times column last month that the general would be an excellent, if unorthodox, choice as a vice-presidential running mate for Senator John McCain.
George Stephanopoulos raised the idea, too, on ABC’s “This Week,” as have others. The New York Sun went further when it opined last September, before his last appearance on the Hill, that the commander should scold weak-kneed members of Congress and declare his intention to run in 2008. (Of course this was when the Republican field was still in disarray, and before Mr. McCain, a naval officer during the Vietnam War who endured five years as a prisoner of war, emerged as the Republican nominee.)
General Petraeus, following the officers’ tradition of avoiding publicly partisan activity while in uniform, has repeatedly denied any civilian political ambition. Never mind that no one even knows which party he belongs to, if any. An aide said that he has not voted since he became a major general in 2001.
But he is asked about his political ambitions so often, the aide said, that he has taken to quoting the lyrics of a country song by Lorrie Morgan: “So tell me what part of ‘no’ don’t you understand.” General Petraeus has even invoked the reply of another much-courted general, William Tecumseh Sherman: “If drafted, I will not run; if nominated, I will not accept; if elected, I will not serve.”
However reticent he is on that score, his ambition as a general was matched with an exceedingly challenging assignment on the ground in Iraq. After successfully arguing for the chance to test a new Army counterinsurgency strategy that he himself wrote, General Petraeus flooded Iraq’s cities with American forces, creating the military presence necessary to re-establish at least a semblance of authority in areas that had been taken over by extremist militias or terrorist groups. That allowed tribal leaders, especially in Sunni areas like Anbar Province, essentially to switch sides.
His success was thus in part political (as far as it went, critics would say). But the improvements in security he has presided over could evaporate if Iraq’s new leaders fall back into ethnic rivalries and violence. And the Iraqi Army’s inconclusive assault against Shiite militias in Basra last month, in which more than 1,000 Iraqi soldiers and policemen refused to fight or simply abandoned their posts, can’t be an encouraging sign.
At home, the war’s critics have accused General Petraeus of aligning himself far too closely with President Bush’s policies — above and beyond what would be required from any officer who answers to the commander in chief. suggested he was dishonestly portraying the war’s realities in its “General Betray Us” newspaper advertisement last fall. (The ad redounded in his favor, since it allowed his supporters to skewer those who questioned his patriotism and professionalism.)
Lawrence J. Korb, a defense official under President Reagan who is now a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, called General Petraeus “the most political general since Douglas MacArthur.” He cited an op-ed article the general wrote in The Washington Post defending the war and the progress being made in Iraq. The subject wasn’t as controversial as the timing; it appeared six weeks before the 2004 election between President Bush and Senator John Kerry, a race in which the war loomed large.
“That doesn’t help with the credibility of the profession,” Mr. Korb said. “He could have written that six months after the election.”
All generals have to master the politics of the Pentagon’s competing bureaucracies, and those at his level have to carefully navigate relations with the civilians in charge as they nurse their ambitions. And that is where General Petraeus, however ambitious he may be, parts company with MacArthur.
He is not openly defying a president, which is what prompted President Truman to dismiss General MacArthur during the Korean War; rather, General Petraeus is doing just the opposite. More apt, perhaps, is the analogy to another Korean War figure: Gen. Matthew Ridgeway, another respected commander who took over an American force in disarray against the Chinese and North Koreans and fought the war on the terms President Truman demanded. He stabilized what threatened to become an embarrassing defeat, but it was left to the next president to negotiate an exit, another general-turned-politician: Dwight D. Eisenhower.

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