David Rothkopf

Petraeus’s media surge (and the aftermath)

Reviewing the results of General David Petraeus’s media blitz this weekend, you have to wonder if the folks in the White House might be wishing they were back in the good old days of the boneheaded media missteps and ham-fisted leaks of General Stanley “Got My Picture on the Cover of Rolling Stone” McChrystal. (And ...

Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images
Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

Reviewing the results of General David Petraeus’s media blitz this weekend, you have to wonder if the folks in the White House might be wishing they were back in the good old days of the boneheaded media missteps and ham-fisted leaks of General Stanley “Got My Picture on the Cover of Rolling Stone” McChrystal.

(And if they don’t understand why they should be … then, well, you just have to wonder …)

In particular, you would think they couldn’t help but notice the tactical genius behind the general’s latest — media — surge. Take one of its spotlight moments, the lead story in Monday’s New York Times. Take the way he makes the case for resisting the impulse to pull out of Afghanistan:

General Petraeus said that it was only in the last few weeks that the war plan had been fine-tuned and given the resources it required. ‘For the first time,’ he said, ‘we will have been working to put in place for the last year and a half.'”

The Times goes on to note that on “Meet the Press” the general even “appeared to leave open the possibility that he would recommend against any withdrawal of American forces next summer.”

Let’s consider: “…only in the last few weeks that the war plan had been fine-tuned.” Really, general? So what was that yearlong policy review about? The past nine years of effort by U.S. military planners — the last several of which have involved your active participation and supervision? This is the Charlie Sheen approach to military planning: just give me one more chance, please, just one more and I promise I’ll get it right this time.

Let’s consider: “…and given the resources it required.” I see, you’re saying that we’ve only now finished ramping up. But certainly the president, acting on your advice, recognized this moment was coming at the conclusion of that policy review, right? Or when he and others in his administration repeated promises that the drawdown would take place since then? In fact, wasn’t the whole point of the president’s new Afghan strategy that we would ramp up and then almost immediately transfer responsibilities to the Afghans and get out? Either you are suggesting that process, in which you played such a central role, was bungled or you are suggesting that the president and his advisors knew that the escalate-withdraw one-two punch of the articulated strategy was a have-it-both-ways scam.

In either case, what’s up with generals discussing what their private advice to the president might be prior to discussing it with the president? What’s up with generals seeming to make or “fine-tune” policy that might in time make things very awkward for the president? Petraeus is no doubt being honest about his views. But here’s the point: Unlike McChrystal, he is a key validator for the president and thus has political heft that few others have. Especially after the McChrystal debacle, Petraeus’ weight in the policy-making apparatus has gone up, particularly if he is as willing as he seems to be to conduct his efforts via the media.

What? You think the White House approved all this? OK, it’s possible, I suppose. But let’s go back to that “it’s only in the past few weeks that the war plan has been fine-tuned.” That would mean the White House okayed a statement that suggested that, 20 months into this administration, they were just now getting around to finalizing their plan for what is certainly their signature foreign policy initiative. Do they — or the general — really think that this “just give us one more try” approach is going to work with the American people after almost a decade of tragic losses and mind-boggling expense? In a war that can’t be won?

Petraeus’s behavior shouldn’t come as that much of surprise. (In fact, I have said since he took on his new job that he would ultimately prove to be a much bigger challenge for the White House than McChrystal ever was — in large part because of his stature, intellect, and candor.) After all, this is the man who appeared before Congress and said of the last war he was in charge of, “I don’t know if war in Iraq makes Americans safer.” Was he right to doubt it? Sure. Did his articulating that position help his civilian bosses? You can ask them if you can find them on their various book tours and other retirement activities.

Of course, the buzz over the general’s weekend blitz through the nation’s capital is secondary to a host of bigger issues here. To take just one example, it pales in comparison to the recent study done by the military examining the mind-boggling, heart-breaking fact that suicides exceed battlefield deaths among American Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans. As the study concluded: “Simply stated, we are often more dangerous to ourselves than the enemy.”

It’s a tragedy that warrants much closer attention than it has gotten. It bespeaks a horrific breakdown in our system of caring for our veterans. But in wars like these — with impossible, constantly shifting objectives, allies who are enemies and leaders who are constantly second-guessing either themselves or each other — is it any wonder that we are the source of greatest danger to our own troops?

Reviewing the results of General David Petraeus’s media blitz this weekend, you have to wonder if the folks in the White House might be wishing they were back in the good old days of the boneheaded media missteps and ham-fisted leaks of General Stanley “Got My Picture on the Cover of Rolling Stone” McChrystal.

(And if they don’t understand why they should be … then, well, you just have to wonder …)

In particular, you would think they couldn’t help but notice the tactical genius behind the general’s latest — media — surge. Take one of its spotlight moments, the lead story in Monday’s New York Times. Take the way he makes the case for resisting the impulse to pull out of Afghanistan:

General Petraeus said that it was only in the last few weeks that the war plan had been fine-tuned and given the resources it required. ‘For the first time,’ he said, ‘we will have been working to put in place for the last year and a half.'”

The Times goes on to note that on “Meet the Press” the general even “appeared to leave open the possibility that he would recommend against any withdrawal of American forces next summer.”

Let’s consider: “…only in the last few weeks that the war plan had been fine-tuned.” Really, general? So what was that yearlong policy review about? The past nine years of effort by U.S. military planners — the last several of which have involved your active participation and supervision? This is the Charlie Sheen approach to military planning: just give me one more chance, please, just one more and I promise I’ll get it right this time.

Let’s consider: “…and given the resources it required.” I see, you’re saying that we’ve only now finished ramping up. But certainly the president, acting on your advice, recognized this moment was coming at the conclusion of that policy review, right? Or when he and others in his administration repeated promises that the drawdown would take place since then? In fact, wasn’t the whole point of the president’s new Afghan strategy that we would ramp up and then almost immediately transfer responsibilities to the Afghans and get out? Either you are suggesting that process, in which you played such a central role, was bungled or you are suggesting that the president and his advisors knew that the escalate-withdraw one-two punch of the articulated strategy was a have-it-both-ways scam.

In either case, what’s up with generals discussing what their private advice to the president might be prior to discussing it with the president? What’s up with generals seeming to make or “fine-tune” policy that might in time make things very awkward for the president? Petraeus is no doubt being honest about his views. But here’s the point: Unlike McChrystal, he is a key validator for the president and thus has political heft that few others have. Especially after the McChrystal debacle, Petraeus’ weight in the policy-making apparatus has gone up, particularly if he is as willing as he seems to be to conduct his efforts via the media.

What? You think the White House approved all this? OK, it’s possible, I suppose. But let’s go back to that “it’s only in the past few weeks that the war plan has been fine-tuned.” That would mean the White House okayed a statement that suggested that, 20 months into this administration, they were just now getting around to finalizing their plan for what is certainly their signature foreign policy initiative. Do they — or the general — really think that this “just give us one more try” approach is going to work with the American people after almost a decade of tragic losses and mind-boggling expense? In a war that can’t be won?

Petraeus’s behavior shouldn’t come as that much of surprise. (In fact, I have said since he took on his new job that he would ultimately prove to be a much bigger challenge for the White House than McChrystal ever was — in large part because of his stature, intellect, and candor.) After all, this is the man who appeared before Congress and said of the last war he was in charge of, “I don’t know if war in Iraq makes Americans safer.” Was he right to doubt it? Sure. Did his articulating that position help his civilian bosses? You can ask them if you can find them on their various book tours and other retirement activities.

Of course, the buzz over the general’s weekend blitz through the nation’s capital is secondary to a host of bigger issues here. To take just one example, it pales in comparison to the recent study done by the military examining the mind-boggling, heart-breaking fact that suicides exceed battlefield deaths among American Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans. As the study concluded: “Simply stated, we are often more dangerous to ourselves than the enemy.”

It’s a tragedy that warrants much closer attention than it has gotten. It bespeaks a horrific breakdown in our system of caring for our veterans. But in wars like these — with impossible, constantly shifting objectives, allies who are enemies and leaders who are constantly second-guessing either themselves or each other — is it any wonder that we are the source of greatest danger to our own troops?

David Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017. Twitter: @djrothkopf

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