David Petraeus Would Be a Great Secretary of State
The general with more terrorist blood on his hands than any other American is the right choice for America’s top diplomat.
President-elect Donald Trump has made a terrific choice — his best one yet — in choosing retired Gen. James Mattis as his secretary of defense. Mattis is not only a first-rate operational commander who will inspire fear in U.S. enemies and devotion among its troops, but also a serious student of military history and strategy who has thought deeply about issues of war and peace. The only cost in appointing Mattis, along with retired Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn as national security advisor, is that it could take David Petraeus out of the running for secretary of state on the theory that the administration can’t have retired generals filling all of the senior national security posts.
That would be a mistake. Petraeus would be a superbly qualified secretary of state — one who already has more diplomatic experience than most of those previously selected for this position. He is not, to be sure, the only qualified candidate. Mitt Romney would also be good selection because he is a man of decency and intellect and his selection would show that Trump does not harbor a grudge against those who opposed him during the campaign. If Romney is chosen, one can imagine other qualified critics of Trump being asked to serve in lower-level, if still critical, positions. But of the leading candidates — a list that apparently now includes not just Petraeus and Romney but also Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton, ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, and former governor and ambassador Jon Huntsman, Jr. — it is the retired general who has the deepest experience in, and knowledge of, world affairs.
Although he spent 37 years in uniform and rose to four-star rank, Petraeus is in some ways not the prototypical general. He is a man, after all, who holds a doctorate in international relations from Princeton and who stood out from his peers for his cerebral approach to his job. One of his signal achievements was producing, along with Mattis, an Army/Marine field manual on counterinsurgency that served as the intellectual blueprint for the surge that he led as the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq. He went on to serve as head of Central Command, as commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, and as director of the CIA.
In all of those positions his duties were as much, if not more so, diplomatic and strategic rather than purely military. Having known Petraeus for 13 years — I first met him when he was the commander of the 101st Airborne Division in Mosul in 2003 — I have been impressed by his sure grasp of all the levers of power, most of them non-kinetic. In Iraq in 2007-2008, he was a virtuoso at getting his message across with American journalists and lawmakers in order to buy himself more time to win the war — while at the same time turning the screws on Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to get him to reach out to marginalized Sunnis. He understood that the key terrain of the conflict was in the realms of politics, diplomacy, and communications, not the use of force per se — although he also did not hesitate to use force in a targeted and effective way. (As commander in both Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as CIA director, he has probably been responsible for the deaths of more violent jihadis than any other American.) Later, as head of U.S. Central Command from 2008 to 2010, he became America’s dominant voice in the Middle East, outshining the State Department because of his connections across the region and the credibility that he brought to meetings with military and political leaders.
Since leaving the government, Petraeus has maintained a peripatetic global travel schedule as chairman of the KKR Global Institute and a partner at the investment firm. He has also weighed in on many issues far beyond the military realm. For example, he co-chaired a Council on Foreign Relations task force on North America that called for strengthening relations between the United States, Mexico, and Canada — a welcome alternative to the protectionist and xenophobic rhetoric that the president-elect often indulged in during the campaign.
In short, Petraeus is far more than a narrow-minded military man. Indeed, he may not have won Trump over as swiftly and completely in his job interview as Mattis did, because he does not conform to Trump’s cigar-chomping impression of what generals should be like; Petraeus is more in the Eisenhower mold than the Patton mold. That is why no one should be troubled if Petraeus becomes the third general to occupy a senior national-security post. Far from giving a pro-war tilt to the new administration, he would be an important restraint on a president who has spoken far too freely of bombing various countries and of torturing terrorists.
The chief knock on Petraeus, aside from the fact that he would be another general, is the unfortunate circumstances under which he was forced out of his CIA job in 2012. He resigned after his affair with his biographer, Paula Broadwell, became public. He subsequently pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor counts of sharing classified information with her, agreeing to spend two years on probation and to pay a $100,000 fine. Many critics are agog that Trump would even consider hiring Petraeus after spending the campaign claiming that Hillary Clinton should be locked up for her mishandling of classified information on her private email account.
In truth, both the Clinton and Petraeus cases are minor ones that have nothing in common with the criminal acts of Edward Snowden or Chelsea Manning, both of whom took highly classified information and made it public to the detriment of American national security. There was no public release of any classified information on Petraeus’s (or Clinton’s) part. In fact, Petraeus assigned one of his staff officers, Col. Mike Meese (now a part of the Trump transition team), to ensure that Broadwell, who also had a security clearance, did not reveal anything she wasn’t supposed to in her book.
It is telling that Snowden is now claiming in an interview from Moscow, eagerly promoted by the Kremlin’s propaganda organs, that Petraeus’s transgressions were more serious than his own. That simply isn’t so — it’s like comparing jaywalking with bank robbery — but that Snowden is saying so suggests that the Kremlin does not want to see the secretary of state position go to someone who would be expected to stand up to Vladimir Putin’s aggression. No doubt Putin would be more comfortable with a candidate like Rex Tillerson who, as the Wall Street Journal notes, has “some of the closest ties among U.S. CEO’s to Mr. Putin and Russia.”
Petraeus has already paid a price for his transgression that goes well beyond his guilty plea on a misdemeanor. He lost his CIA post and he was subjected to public humiliation, which is especially painful for someone who has always valued his well-earned reputation for rectitude. It would be overkill if Petraeus’s one-time error were to forever disqualify him from public service. He still has much to offer a country that he has spent most of his life serving. As secretary of state he could follow capably in the footsteps of his hero, Gen. George C. Marshall.
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