Sunday, August 5, 2007

The Overhyping of David Petraeus

TNR: By Andrew Bacevich
In a cover story featuring Petraeus back in July 2004, Newsweek asked: 'can this man save iraq?' Eighteen months later, the White House, Congress, and the Pentagon had arrived at a consensus: If any hope of saving Iraq remained, David Petraeus was the man to turn that hope into reality.

Yet Iraq has not been kind to the reputation of senior U.S. commanders. For a brief moment in the early '90s, for example, H. Norman Schwarzkopf seemed a likely candidate to join the ranks of history's Great Captains. No more: Schwarzkopf's failure to finish off an adversary of remarkable ineptitude left Saddam Hussein in power, his Republican Guard largely intact, and Iraqi Kurds and Shia under Saddam's boot. One result was a large, permanent, and problematic U.S. military presence to keep Saddam in his 'box.' Once seen as a stupendous victory, Operation Desert Storm deserves to be enshrined as a giant step down the nation's road to Persian Gulf perdition.

In 2003, General Tommy Franks set out to clean up Stormin' Norman's mess. Although Franks has modestly described the ensuing invasion of Iraq as 'unequaled in its excellence by anything in the annals of war,' future generations are unlikely to sustain that judgment. When it came to leaving a tangle of loose ends, Franks made Schwarzkopf look like a piker. His niche in history will always be alongside Bremer and George Tenet, fellow recipients of the Medal of Freedom--the Three Stooges who labored mightily to convert a small, unnecessary war into an epic debacle. ...

Although the deluded and disingenuous may persist in pretending otherwise, [Petraeus'] mission is not to "win" the Iraq war. Coalition forces in Iraq are not fighting to achieve victory. Their purpose is far more modest. According to Petraeus himself, U.S. troops and their allies are "buying time for Iraqis to reconcile." ...Yet an exploration of what the buying-time strategy actually means reveals that the prospects of its success are exceedingly slim. The cult of Petraeus exists not because the general has figured out the war but because hiding behind the general allows the Bush administration to postpone the day when it must reckon with the consequences of its abject failure in Iraq. ...

Had the United States taken this approach back in the weeks and months immediately following the fall of Baghdad, it might have borne fruit. But 2007 is not 2003. Given the passage of time--and given the innumerable blunders perpetrated by generals and civilian policymakers alike during those years--U.S. forces have become part of the problem rather than part of any prospective solution.

Petraeus, who cultivates the image of a sage warrior-intellectual, knows this. Among his favorite axioms is this: "Any army of liberation has a certain half-life before it becomes an army of occupation." Petraeus made this comment repeatedly to reporters in 2003 and 2004. He reiterated the point in a 2006 article summarizing his own lessons from Iraq. The point is not without wisdom. It also possesses immediate relevance to matters at hand. Somewhat coyly, Petraeus has never specified the duration of this half-life. Yet this much is certain: The moment when Americans might have persuaded Iraqis to embrace them as liberators has long since passed. We have failed to make good on too many promises. In our heavy-handed efforts to root out insurgents, we have too frequently mistaken the innocent for the guilty. However inadvertently, we have killed and maimed too many civilians. Sadly, in places like Abu Ghraib and Haditha, we have committed too many crimes. We have just plain screwed up too many times.

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