Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

The Best Defense interview: Petraeus on not running for president, pirates, President Obama & ‘The Blind Side’

I noticed the other day that Gen. David Petraeus has been speaking all over the place and I figured if the Provo, Utah, newspaper could get an interview, so might I. So I did. This is what he had to say. His responses are given here in full and unedited. If I were writing this ...

Chris Hondros/Getty Images
Chris Hondros/Getty Images

I noticed the other day that Gen. David Petraeus has been speaking all over the place and I figured if the Provo, Utah, newspaper could get an interview, so might I. So I did. This is what he had to say. His responses are given here in full and unedited.

If I were writing this as a news story, I’d probably hype the "review of concept" meeting he mentions on Afghanistan. But it isn’t.

Best Defense: What do you think Americans aren’t noticing about your Area of Responsibility right now that you think they should?

General Petraeus: Americans are, I think, up to speed on the situations in Afghanistan and Iraq and, to a lesser degree perhaps, with respect to Iran.  Areas that I think have been less noticed include:  Pakistani operations to combat the Pakistani Taliban (though, to be fair, they have received more attention recently); efforts by  the United States and countries in the region to help Yemen deal with AQAP and a variety of political, economic, and social challenges; efforts to establish the Regional Security Architecture in the CENTCOM AOR; initiatives by U.S. forces, together with NATO, EU, and other partners to combat piracy; and the regional effort to counter Al Qaeda and other trans-national extremists.

BD: Why is the U.S. Navy leaving most of the heavy lifting with the Somali pirates to other NATO navies? Are you comfortable with that, or would you like to see the 5th Fleet doing more?   

GP: See answer above, please. Actually, the 5th Fleet, together with a number of maritime coalition partners, is doing a great deal to combat piracy in coordination with NATO and EU elements, as well as with ships from other countries not part of a formal unit.  Clearly, we need to publicize more of what is being done.

BD: In Afghanistan, is it time for something like a "night of the long knives" where we simply give President Karzai a list of his officials with whom we no longer will deal or fund in any form?

GP: I’ll avoid that minefield; however, I would observe that situations in places like Afghanistan and Iraq are seldom as straight forward or as black and white as they sometimes appear to be in news stories. Rather, they tend to be very complex and in varying shades of gray…

BD: Or are we unable to deliver that sort of ultimatum until we have the U.S. military, State and CIA on the same page about Afghan officials?

GP: I’ll go around this minefield, too. However, I will note that, as I know you recognize, unity of effort is an important component of any comprehensive, civil-military counterinsurgency campaign. And it is, needless to say, an objective sought by all the military, diplomatic, and intelligence community leaders in Afghanistan. To further achievement of that objective, Ambassador Holbrooke and I will fly together to the region in the weeks ahead to conduct a civil-military "review of concept" drill with Ambassador Eikenberry, General McChrystal and a variety of other interagency, international, and host nation partners.   

BD: Who do you predict will become prime minister of Iraq? 

GP: I wouldn’t hazard a guess; however, I do share the hopes of the Iraqi people that their new government will be representative of, and responsive to, all the ethno-sectarian elements of the Iraqi population and also that their new government will keep the best interests of Iraq and the Iraqis foremost in all that the new government’s leaders seek to do.

BD: On Iraq: My sense of what Americans are thinking about it, from my own recent speaking tour around the country, is that they regret we invaded it, are sorry they ever heard of it, but blame President Bush for the mess, and so are giving President Obama a lot of leeway to handle it as he goes forward. What is your sense? 

GP: History will obviously render the ultimate verdict on Iraq. Having said that, I think the American people recognize the progress that has been made since the surge was conducted in 2007, believe that the policy adopted by President Obama is sensible, and thus support the continued execution of that policy.

BD: Speaking of President Obama, how is it different dealing with him than when he was a senator?

GP: At the risk of stating the obvious, he’s the commander in chief now. Beyond that, he’s still as focused and engaged as ever, he doesn’t shrink from making tough calls, and he and the First Lady are genuinely concerned about our troopers and their families. 

BD: Back home, I’ve recently noticed you appearing in Utah, New Hampshire and Florida. How come?

GP: We try to go on the road in the United States about once a month and package together a number of speaking engagements — to universities, World Affairs Councils, think tanks, editorial boards, etc. — as efficiently as we can in a 48-72-hour period. As you’ll recall, I’ve always believed that folks who serve in a position such as the one I’m privileged to hold have an obligation to be accessible to the American people, to report forthrightly what America’s sons and daughters are doing, and to address questions from fellow citizens. That’s what we try to do.

BD: You keep on saying you are not running for president. Why do you think people seem to believe you are?

GP: Beats me. I’ve been as categorical as one could be. 

BD: What is your favorite place to visit in your Area of Responsibility, and why?

GP: Wouldn’t say there’s a favorite place, Tom. We’re obviously in the AOR a lot. We try to spread my visits around and to visit each country a minimum of twice a year, though obviously we visit some (e.g., Afghanistan and Pakistan) much more frequently.  Beyond that, needless to say, we focus more on certain places at various times than on others, depending on the issues of the day.

BD: We do a lot of reading lists on my blog. What is one book you’ve read lately that you think should be better known?

GP: Bruce Catton’s Grant Takes Command (and Jean Edward Smith’s Grant). Both support historian Sean Wilentz’ recent assertion that Grant was a truly great commander and president, vastly better than historians assessed some years back. 

BD: Is there any book you are telling your staff to read?

GP: The last one I recommended was Stones into Schools. Beyond that, at present, we’re focused on a number of official reports/analyses; they’re keeping us occupied for the time being.

BD: Any movies you are recommending?

GP: Not much time at the movies lately, I’m afraid, but we sure did enjoy The Blind Side a couple of months ago. 

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1