The Professor of War


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Feb 18, 2010
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Decked out in dress greens, his uniform so laden with insignia, badges, patches, ribbons, and medals that it seemed to pull him into a slight stoop, the Most Important General in America, David Howell Petraeus, arrived on Capitol Hill in September of 2007 bearing remarkable news.

Just back from Baghdad, the hot center of a four-year-long war that had come to be seen as a fiasco, Petraeus would testify that things had begun to improve—that the counter-insurgency strategy he had initiated eight months before was working, against all odds and expectations. Violent incidents had fallen off dramatically. Former Sunni insurgents had come around and begun to oppose al-Qaeda. Dangerous Shiite militias were putting down their arms. Instead of conceding futility and abandoning Iraq to chaos and civil war, there was a good chance the United States could stabilize the country enough to begin a relatively bloodless and honorable phased withdrawal.

The general brought, in short, unwelcome news, at least to many Democratic lawmakers.

When he arrived in the crowded hearing room, on the morning of September 10, only his immediate staff had read his planned testimony. With members of the House Armed Services and Foreign Affairs Committees staring down at him from a two-tiered dais, the general emphasized that simple fact: “I wrote this testimony myself,” he said. “It has not been cleared by, nor shared with, anyone in the Pentagon, the White House, or the Congress.”

Shutters clicked and cameras flashed. The general seemed perfectly calm but was, in fact, uncomfortable. The stakes were enormous, the emotion was palpable, the scrutiny was intense. The sheer length of the hearings would be physically painful. Fortified with Motrin, Petraeus sat erect at the edge of a hard chair that afforded no cushion for his pelvis, which he had broken seven years earlier in a parachute jump. He is a slight man, still boyish in his mid-50s, with blue eyes, limp brown hair combed flat to the right, and a concave face whose features slope away from a prominent nose. He looks more like a bookworm than a warrior. Cheerful by nature, he is eager to please and eager to explain. Petraeus is a world-class explainer. There is scarcely a soldier who has served with him who has not, in the general’s own words, “been PowerPointed to within an inch of his life.” His presentations are masterworks of explication that aspire to the level of art. They reflect his deep understanding of—indeed, his love for—the byzantine machinery of America’s military-industrial complex.

But no matter how well prepared he might be, there was little chance of dazzling this crowd. Before he had even opened his mouth he was under attack. Democrats had won a majority in Congress and were gearing up to ride anger and frustration over the Iraq war to the White House. The last thing they wanted to hear was that things were looking up—that President George W. Bush’s so-called surge was working. The advocacy group, anticipating that Petraeus would fail to signal retreat, had attacked him with a full-page ad in that day’s New York Times, labeling him “General Betray Us.” Before the first word of his presentation, Armed Services chairman Ike Skelton described the general’s efforts in Iraq as a failure. Foreign Affairs Committee chair Tom Lantos, a pink-faced Democrat from California with a perfectly coiffed white halo, squinted down at the general—again before seeing or hearing a word from him—and pronounced, “With all due respect to you, I must say, I don’t buy it.”

That was just the start. Petraeus would sit through two long days of hearings, first in the House, and the next day before the Senate heavyweights, including three Democratic presidential hopefuls vying with one another to appear the most fervently anti-war. He had flown through eight time zones to answer questions, only to face interrogators more keen on listening to themselves. He was lectured by Foreign Relations Committee chairman Joseph Biden, who questioned the validity of the general’s figures about the sharply reduced violence. (Biden was in fact wrong.) Senator Hillary Clinton, then the front-runner, in so many words called Petraeus a liar. To be fair, she put it politely, and might even have meant it as a compliment, one professional prevaricator to another, calling his testimony an “extraordinary effort” but one that requires a “willing suspension of disbelief.”

Senator Barack Obama was equally dismissive. He had staked his campaign in part on the purity of his opposition to the war. When his turn came, Obama lectured Petraeus on the futility of his mission, using up the full seven minutes allocated to him and giving the general no chance to respond. “We have now set the bar so low,” said Obama, “that modest improvement in what was a completely chaotic situation … is considered success. And it’s not. This continues to be a disastrous foreign-policy mistake.”

Petraeus had known that his reception would be unfriendly. This was not the loyal soldier reporting back from the front to a grateful nation; this was an inquisition. Congress had commanded his presence. The general had prepared for it like a defense attorney facing a hostile jury. He understood the politics in play. He also knew what was going on in Iraq far better than anyone else in the room.

It had been a dark period. His strategy for turning things around wasn’t unpopular only with Congress. Most of his own superior officers at the time—people such as General George Casey, the previous commander in Iraq and now the chief of staff of the U.S. Army, and General John Abizaid, who headed the U.S. Central Command (CentCom), the job Petraeus himself now holds—didn’t believe in it, either. A lifelong team player, Petraeus had been plucked out of the chain of command by President Bush. For the first time in his life, his immediate superiors were envious, suspicious, even actively hostile. In Iraq, American casualties had soared in the spring months, when he began implementing his new strategy, ordering soldiers out of their fortified enclaves and armored Humvees and into forward bases where they patrolled the dangerous streets on foot. The carnage was considerable, and took its toll. Petraeus made a point of visiting the wounded and attending the memorial services for as many of those killed as he could, placing his commander’s coin before each ceremonial display of boots, rifle, and helmet, and writing a letter to each fallen soldier’s next of kin. Two days before the hearings began, the general and his wife, Holly, had pinned her father’s jump wings on the uniform of their only son, an R.O.T.C. cadet, during a graduation ceremony at Fort Benning, Georgia. Petraeus had an understanding of the risks and costs that was personal and profound.

Facing Congress, he didn’t waver. It was the same now as on the day Bush had met with him privately in the Oval Office after the Senate confirmed his selection for what most felt was an impossible mission. The general had said, “Mr. President, this isn’t double-down.… This is all-in.” It was an expression that would be repeated often within his inner circle. They were staking everything on the outcome. There could be no second thoughts, no looking back.

The legislators who peered down skeptically at this unimposing officer in his resplendent uniform did not know their man. Here was someone who had forged an unparalleled record of success in perhaps the most competitive institution in America. In the words of one former aide, “Petraeus is the most competitive man on the planet.”

Biden pressed him hard, seeking to dismiss the general’s numbers and to wrest an admission that Iraq’s violence was beyond control. The senator had made frequent trips to the war zone. He saw himself not just as a critic but as a particularly well-informed and wily critic. He cast doubt on the general’s data, which showed a steep decline in violent incidents beginning in midsummer. The chairman contrasted that trend with contradictory findings in a recent Government Accountability Office report, which he referred to as “an independent study,” suggesting that it was more credible. He let the damning implication hang there for a moment, and then magnanimously waved it aside, saying, “But let me not get into that debate.” Generous Joe had decided not to embarrass the witness further.

But he did want one little thing. He wanted Petraeus to concede—two sensible men looking each other in the eye—that however you crunched the numbers Baghdad was bad news. “Let me ask you a question,” said the chairman, like a cat probing a mousehole with its paw. “Can a Sunni Arab travel safely to a Shia neighborhood in Baghdad today without fear of being kidnapped or killed?”

Petraeus would respond, but he wasn’t going to let the slap at his statistics go unanswered. “First of all, Mr. Chairman, if I could make just one comment about the G.A.O. report … ” He explained that, far from being “independent,” it had used exactly the same data he had, except that its numbers were out of date—they ended “at least five weeks prior to our cutoff date, which ran until this past Friday.” Petraeus added, “The final five weeks have been pretty important.”

“Again, I don’t want to get into an argument about that,” said Biden. It was increasingly evident why not. “Let me get directly to my question”—and he asked again, extending that paw deeper into the hole, if there was any part of Baghdad where a Sunni could travel safely into a Shia area.

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