We Americans are easily titillated by the suggestion of sexual scandal, so it’s no surprise that the news media have been obsessed with the escapades of David Petraeus and those in his inner circle. But the narrative is misleading and superficial. It focuses on the wrong seduction.
The more instructive storyline would be one that illuminates the ways in which Petraeus was able to seduce members of Congress (Democrats and Republicans), journalists and the citizenry at large. He persuaded politicians, opinion leaders and ordinary voters that he was a heroic, larger-than-life figure who could win wars that were, in reality, unwinnable. It was just what many Americans wanted to hear.
It was a mutually destructive notion. The covert affair the four-star general carried on with his biographer, Paula Broadwell, is a rather pedestrian tale full of “sound and fury, signifying nothing.” By contrast, the romance between Petraeus and his admiring public is a story of fatal consequence. If we are willing to reflect on that story, there are lessons to be learned.
Ah, how I remember, with no fondness whatsoever, those halcyon days when the general presented himself as the man who would salvage a foolish misadventure in Iraq. In 2007, when violence was the only thing surging in and around Baghdad, Petraeus came forward with his rewritten counter-insurgency manual, offering George W. Bush a way to save face. Bush promptly put Petraeus in charge of his war.
I’ll give the general this much: The Pentagon had not thought much about counter-insurgency strategy since Vietnam, and the typical battlefield tactics in which U.S. troops are trained were merely killing Iraqi civilians and creating new enemies. The general sought, rightly, to focus troops on protecting civilians instead.
But the pacification of Iraq — such as it was — was largely accomplished through the so-called Sunni awakening, in which Sunni tribesmen stopped fighting us and trained their weapons on insurgents. That started in 2005, two years before the surge, as Sunnis grew to distrust al Qaeda and its affiliates. And it was helped mightily by the Pentagon’s tactical decision to put many of those Sunnis on its payroll.