Small Wars Journal

General Principles: How Good was David Petraeus?

General Principles: How Good was David Petraeus? By Dexter Filkins in the 17 December issue of The New Yorker.

... The truth is Petraeus really was exceptional. In many ways, the biggest problem that the American military faced in Iraq was itself. When Petraeus and other officers tried to change the approach in Iraq, they hit a wall of entrenched resistance. After the war in Vietnam, American generals banished the idea of counter-insurgency, perhaps figuring that if they didn’t plan for such a war they wouldn’t have to fight one...

In the weeks since Petraeus’s resignation, some of his detractors have argued that his accomplishment in Iraq was merely to put an acceptable face on defeat. This is absurd. Petraeus was asked to shepherd a disastrous war; his achievements are real and substantial, and shouldn’t be obscured by something as irrelevant as an extramarital affair...

It’s too soon to tell exactly, of course, but his legacy looks reasonably clear. Iraq was a bloody tie, but without his extraordinary efforts it would have been much worse. Afghanistan, which he was called in to rescue, looks as if it will end badly. That’s probably not enough to get him into the temple with Ike, but, given the wars that he was handed, it’s hard to imagine an American general who could have done better. Petraeus was lucky—just not lucky enough.


Robert C. Jones

Thu, 12/13/2012 - 6:36am

In an era where our National narrative has become increasingly ideological in nature, and where our strategic focus has become increasingly defined in terms of spcific threat groups, the locations they reside, and packages of tactical programs intended to defeat the same, I think GEN Petreaus is rightfully seen as one our best.

A man of his times, our best at designing, selling and implementing tactical approaches at the strategic level. Judge the times, not the man, for Petreaus gave his bosses what they wanted better than his peers.

As we move forward, however, I hope we can recognize where we have drifted to as we struggle to understand the post-Cold War era and to sustain a carefully crafted US-led global system that was probably obsolete before the first hammer struck the Berlin Wall.

We need to peel back the layers of ideological extremism in our own National Security strategy (which may allow us to begin being less fearful of any who propose ideologies different than our own elsewhere). We need to regain a new strategic focus as to what our most important interests truly are, and how we best secure those interests in the world as it actually exists (and evolves) around us, not the vision of a perfect world we cling to (though it never really existed to begin with).

Don't hate the player - hate the game.

I think this is a well-reasoned, thoughtful article that takes a more nuanced approach to evaluating General Petraeus than many others I have seen. General Petraeus certainly did not single-handly change the course of the Iraq war. His implementation of COIN and advocacy of the surge did happen generally within the same time frame as the Sunni Awakening and a point in the sectarian conflict at which the Sunnis and Shias had redrawn the sectarian lines and entrenched themselves within ethnically homogeneous neighborhoods. I think these four factors were the crucial elements that turned what looked like a potential strategic defeat for the US into at least a strategic stalemate.

He does deserve credit for shifting the mentality and intent of the operations in Iraq and convincing civilian leadership to provide the resources (e.g. the surge) to implement that shift. While some balk at his cozy relationship with the press and civilian leaders, this is an important tool for generals to use in order to shape the broader war effort and he succeeded in this regard.

He should not receive credit for the Awakening or for the fact that the sectarian elements were taking a tactical pause to consolidate and reorganize on the objective. However, he does deserve credit for taking advantage of these opportunities. In the fog of war, commanders cannot always see opportunities as they appear and it is not uncommon for these opportunities to fall by the wayside. He is due some credit for seizing these opportunities to co-opt the Sunni tribal leaders and, in conjunction with the ISF, focus heavily on subduing Jaish al-Mahdi.

Comparisons to Ike are interesting to ponder but are also apples to oranges. Eisenhower led an effort with clear objectives and the full commitment of a nation behind him. In a war with an unclear strategic objective that was poorly led for the first several years, I think General Petraeus helped us achieve the closest semblenance of success we could've gotten.


Wed, 12/12/2012 - 1:05pm

In reply to by Rick

FDR's decision in that situation was a strategic decision, and his to make as Commander in Chief. I don't recall that FDR dictated how Marshall was to accomplish his direction. FDR set the course and then he butted out.

I agree with your education element and, just as importantly, over time there has been an increasing tendency for the White House to "pull the strings" and control matters of war that it is ill-prepared to involve itself in. There is a lot of spectrum between "grand strategy", strategy, and tactics. I suspect that von Clausewitz' observation may have been a cautionary enjoinder that politics are a force to be contended with when it comes to war, not necessarily a legitimate participant.

As a rule of thumb, once the President & Congress make the decision to go to war, the conduct of the war should be left in the hands of the professionals, not a bunch of politicans who are more concerned with the next election.


Tue, 12/11/2012 - 11:26pm

In reply to by gdilmore

gdilmore - Had FDR butted-out in WW II, Gen. Marshall would have had his way and we would have invaded continental Europe an untested force. Instead, FDR insisted our forces become battle tested in N. Africa.

The real crux is that our general/flag officers haven't done a good job of educating those whose politics our policy to go war is derived from, many of those politics obviously irrational.

Bottom line: "He who maintains, as is so often the case, that politics should not interfere with the conduct of a war has not grasped the ABCs of grand strategy."- Carl von Clausewitz


Tue, 12/11/2012 - 8:06pm

In reply to by jholm

According to the accounts I trust, both President Bush and President Obama went far beyond 'strategic objectives' in discussing their wishes for the respective conflicts down to the 'conduct of the war(s)' something that has become increasingly popular with Presidents in recent history. For whatever the reason, Petraeus agreed to the conditions imposed by both Presidents. If we want our Presidents involved in tactical operations, that's probably o.k., but I would opine that once the decision is made to engage, the generals and admirals should be calling the shots and Presidents should butt out. Looking at the results of recent years and recent wars, that is the better option.


Tue, 12/11/2012 - 3:18pm

In reply to by gdilmore

I'm curious what you mean when you say Petraeus convinced the President that he would do "as the President wished." Aren't all flag officers selected to achieve the strategic objectives established by the President?


Tue, 12/11/2012 - 2:58pm

The reality is that Petraeus went to Iraq because he was able to convince the President that he would do as the President wished and, later, he was sent to Afghanistan because he was able to convince a different President that he would do his bidding after Gen. McChrystal "stepped on it" and the President was looking for a capable "yes man." In that respect, he did as he promised to do, and he was rewarded for it with the CIA job, which should have put him in the quiet zone. Iraq is currently bubbling, as it was when he left there, and we're not yet out of, or out from underneath, Afghanistan, so, in effect, we don't know how good a job he really did in either place. Filkins is opining simply to make it appear that Obama made a good choice in Petraeus, despite Petraeus' misdeeds. We'll see how history treats the General.


Mon, 12/10/2012 - 5:06pm

Nice guy, very intelligent. I had him as a BDE and DIV commander. I was not impressed by him as a warfighter though. He had the ability to enmesh himself with anyone his senior... BLUF: He wasn't a warfighter, he just got along well with the politicians. His faith in COIN was misplaced.


Mon, 12/10/2012 - 3:14pm

As author of the book Defeating Political Islam: The New Cold War, I have nothing but admiration and respect for Gen. Petraeus.

Petraeus’s genius lies in quickly realizing strategic opportunities as they came along and riding with them to successes. This is what he and his team accomplished in Iraq, while the politicians in Washington remained clueless.

However, in Afghanistan or Pakistan there were no such opportunities.