August 31, 2011

The Impact of General David Petraeus, in Four Takes

Gen. David H. Petraeus, the most recognized military officer of his generation, retires from the Army today after roughly four decades in uniform and a career like no other.

With his retirement upon us, we invited four defense experts to reflect on his record. Some of them have known the general up close, others from afar. To each the question was the same: What is his legacy and how has he shaped the U.S. armed forces?

For some, Petraeus will be remembered as the model statesman-soldier — commander of two wars launched by the United States and chief intellectual author of a counterinsurgency doctrine that advances American interests. But for others, Petraeus will be remembered less for his remarkable accomplishments — which are almost universally admired — than for his association with a U.S. foreign policy that, in their view, is costly, misguided and not always effective.

In other words, the story of Gen. David Petraeus is in many ways the story of America’s wars.

The experts’ submissions — mini-essays of sorts — are below.

John Nagl, president of the Center for a New American Security

As the remarkable Army career of Gen. David Petraeus draws to a close, it is clear that he has affected the lives of countless individuals, reshaped the U.S. Army and changed the course of history.

Even before Petraeus captured national attention, he was known as a legendary professor at West Point, finishing his doctoral dissertation in two years while teaching full time and putting enormous efforts into mentoring young cadets. At the time, I was a cadet at West Point, and Petraeus was among my mentors. When I later returned to West Point to teach in a cohort of some 30 Army officers, half of them seemed to have interacted with Col. Petraeus.

Petraeus, of course, has gained recognition less for what he has done in the classroom than on the battlefield. In Iraq, sooner than most, he recognized that the hard part would come after Saddam fell, and when his suspicions of postwar chaos were confirmed, he was assigned the thankless task of rebuilding the Iraqi army, giving his command the moniker “Phoenix” to symbolize an army — and a country — rising from the ashes.

After getting the Iraqi army on its feet (if somewhat unsteadily), Lt. Gen. Petraeus was sent to Fort Leavenworth, Kan., in what was widely seen as exile for an officer whose profile was bigger than was good for him. He chose to see the assignment as a chance to reshape the way the Army thought about counterinsurgency, then still a bad word in the Pentagon. Later, as commander of Multi-National Command-Iraq during that war’s darkest hour, he implemented his doctrine.  

I was asked at the time whether I thought it was too late for counterinsurgency to work in Iraq. I estimated the chances of success at one in six, but concluded, “If there’s a man on the planet who can make it work, it’s Petraeus.”

After turning the tide in Iraq, Petraeus was called to take command of another theater of war, replacing Gen. Stanley McChrystal in Afghanistan. Not hesitating to take a demotion from his current position at CENTCOM, and without informing his wife that he was going back to war, Petraeus demonstrated the kind of respect for civilian authority that is the essence of the United States Army.

Although it is too soon to say Petraeus was able to turn the tide in Afghanistan, it seems fair to suggest that he deserves to be mentioned with Grant and Eisenhower as American generals who have commanded successfully in two theaters of war.