A soldier, a scholar and also a politician

Times Staff Writer

Nearly a year ago, staff officers told Gen. David H. Petraeus that they couldn’t help but notice the striking similarities between his situation and one of the most famous moments in U.S. military history.

They told Petraeus -- then in charge of Ft. Leavenworth in Kansas, and soon to take over as U.S. commander in Iraq -- that he had the opportunity to turn the war around and thereby repeat the achievement of Ulysses S. Grant, who rescued the flagging fortunes of the Union army in the Civil War.

“We talked to him about it before he left Leavenworth -- that he was in a position like Grant was,” said an officer who worked with Petraeus.


Now eight months into his command in Iraq, Petraeus faces a pivotal moment.

On Monday, as President Bush has been promising for months, Petraeus will appear before Congress to offer his assessment of the war’s progress. He will bring to the witness table not only months of his observations, but years of experience carefully honing what many say are uncommon skills as a communicator and soldier, but especially as a politician.

Petraeus may yet turn out to be the Ulysses Grant of the Iraq war. But his upcoming appearance in Washington has other historical echoes, involving a military leader to whom history has been far less kind.

Forty years ago, Army Gen. William C. Westmoreland was brought to Washington in an effort to shore up public support for the Vietnam War. In November 1967, at the behest of President Lyndon B. Johnson, Westmoreland left Saigon to appear before Congress, deliver speeches and take questions from the press. His command later ended amid the turmoil of public debate about the wisdom of the war.

“ ‘67 was the year you really saw erosion of public support starting, and that is why Johnson brings Westmoreland back, because he senses the public is getting tired,” said Mark Moyar, a military historian and author of a book about the Vietnam War, “Triumph Forsaken.”

“Westmoreland comes back and says progress is being made and there is light at the end of the tunnel,” Moyar said. Westmoreland’s comments in Washington led some to accuse him of being a political pawn of the White House, a charge that has begun to be leveled at Petraeus.

It may take years for history to judge whether Petraeus is a Grant or a Westmoreland. But it is clear today that Petraeus is perhaps uniquely suited for the challenge he faces Monday.

‘A true intellect’

For much of his Army career, Petraeus was known best for his staff work, for his Washington savvy and for his service to a long list of important generals. But his reputation grew during the first phase of the Iraq war, when Petraeus also proved himself one of the most successful and adaptable division commanders in the U.S. military.

“Petraeus is a true intellect, perhaps the purest soldier-scholar there is,” said Lt. Col. John Nagl, one of the Army’s top experts on fighting insurgencies.

When Petraeus finished his first Iraq tour in 2005, making his name as a division commander and then overseeing the training of the Iraqi military, he went to Ft. Leavenworth, home of a key Army training operation called the Combined Arms Center.

Petraeus was able to use the Ft. Leavenworth position, once considered something of a backwater post, to focus Army attention on counterinsurgency -- essentially getting the force ready to execute the strategy he would bring to Iraq in 2007.

For instance, Petraeus overhauled the curriculum of Army schools to ensure that Army majors were trained in counterinsurgency operations. He remade the Army’s journal, Military Review, into a periodical focused on the best ways to fight nontraditional wars.

Perhaps most important, Petraeus ordered a complete rewriting of the Army’s counterinsurgency manual. The manual, overseen by Petraeus, is considered the most important piece of Army doctrine in two decades, officers said.

“He was getting the Army focused on not only what he saw as the most likely form of war in the future, but also the kind of war we were fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Nagl said.

So from the relative obscurity of Ft. Leavenworth, officers say, Petraeus managed to spark an “intellectual revitalization” of the Army.

“He was very clear in his own mind: This fight was very different than what we had done in the past,” said the officer who worked with Petraeus at Ft. Leavenworth, who discussed Petraeus’ thinking on the condition of anonymity. “And he pulled all of the levers at Leavenworth to get the Army ready.”

From Ft. Leavenworth, Petraeus also helped develop the troop-buildup strategy that Bush publicly embraced eight months ago. Petraeus was given the chance to refine and execute the strategy when he succeeded Army Gen. George W. Casey Jr. as the top commander in Iraq in February.

Casey’s approach had emphasized efforts to build up Iraqi troops so U.S. forces could begin to draw down. Under Petraeus, U.S. forces have focused on trying to reduce the sectarian violence that has overwhelmed Iraq and on trying to improve security for the Iraqi people, the core tenet of the counterinsurgency manual.

‘A good communicator’

Petraeus’ arrival in Baghdad involved more than just a change in military strategy.

Casey had paid little attention to the American public’s view of the war while he was commanding from Baghdad. He had little love for congressional testimony or press interviews. Some Army officials believe Casey’s distaste for the spotlight contributed to an erosion of the public’s understanding of U.S. goals in Iraq.

Petraeus is more comfortable communicating with the public, and views it as an important responsibility. As commander, Petraeus has sat for many long interviews with journalists and regularly takes them with him as he travels around Iraq.

“He is a good communicator,” said a senior administration official who served with Petraeus. “He is equally comfortable talking to soldiers or talking on national television.”

Experienced in the ways of Washington, Petraeus understood there were other, less direct ways to communicate his ideas. Since he has taken command in Baghdad, a parade of think-tank experts and other scholars have traveled to Iraq to advise the military and get an up-close view of the war. And Petraeus has brought experts who have agreed with him and those who have been critical.

Stephen Biddle, a fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations, had made some favorable remarks about the buildup strategy but had written critically about Petraeus’ counterinsurgency manual and the training of the Iraqi security forces. So Biddle was surprised to find himself invited to Baghdad for a month to help advise the military command.

“It’s very unusual among Army generals to invite a known critic to give you advice,” Biddle said.

Biddle was invited to spend a month in Iraq as part of the Joint Strategic Assessment Team. Other scholars associated with Washington think tanks were invited on weeklong trips to visit Iraq and talk with Petraeus. Although those visits helped the military hear outside perspectives, they were also an opportunity for the military to ensure that its view of the war was understood.

“One of the interesting things about Petraeus is he is much more politically sophisticated,” said one scholar who has advised Petraeus. “He understands not only that he needs advice, but that advice-givers are part of a community that develops the general conventional wisdom on the war.”

Two of the scholars who visited Iraq, Kenneth M. Pollack and Michael E. O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution, wrote a newspaper op-ed after their visit expressing a measure of optimism for Petraeus’ strategy -- and were criticized for succumbing to military propaganda.

Biddle said he believed that by bringing in outside experts, Petraeus was simply trying to help foster an informed debate, not execute a snow job.

“This is a guy trying to do good government,” Biddle said.

An optimist by nature

Even before he has spoken, Petraeus’ appearance in Washington on Monday has been criticized by Democrats. Lawmakers opposed to the troop buildup have linked Petraeus to Bush and questioned the accuracy of some of the information that the military in Baghdad has released.

Aides to Petraeus and to Bush have sought to emphasize the Iraq commander’s independence from the White House. Although Petraeus gave his recommendation to Bush, the general’s aides have not provided his prepared testimony to the White House.

Still, by his nature Petraeus is an optimist, and his version of a balanced assessment could strike opponents of the current strategy as overly positive. Besides, there is little doubt that Petraeus and Bush are on the same page. The two men have spoken weekly about Iraq and the general’s views about the strategy.

“All those encounters do lead to something,” said the senior administration official. “And it could be a fairly common perspective.”


(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX) David Howell Petraeus

Born: Nov. 7, 1952.

1974: Graduates from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

1983: Gen. George C. Marshall Award winner as the top graduate at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College.

1987: Earns doctorate in International Relations from Princeton University.

1991: During a training exercise, Petraeus is shot in the chest. The bullet just misses his heart.

2000: Petraeus breaks his pelvis in a sky-diving accident.

2001 to 2002: Petraeus serves 10 months in Bosnia, helping command the NATO mission.

2003 to 2004: Leads the 101st Airborne Division during U.S. invasion of Iraq. His division is later assigned to Mosul, where Petraeus develops counter-insurgency theories.

June 2004 to September 2005: Oversees the training of the Iraqi military.

October 2005 to January 2007: Serves as commanding general, Combined Arms Center at Ft. Leavenworth, overseeing production of the Army’s Counterinsurgency Field Manual.

February 2007: Takes charge of the Multi-National Force -- Iraq, following nomination by President Bush and confirmation by the Senate, becoming the top U.S. commander in Iraq.

Source: Times research