In an article entitled “Petraeus promotion ensures future for Bush war plan,” the customarily clever Julian Barnes asserted just that. But if one looks beyond the MoveOn ads and public babble, to the deeds on the field, another view comes clear: The opposite is true.
Barnes has it right in only one regard:
Petraeus has been the prime advocate of Bush’s policy of a large troop presence in Iraq. By naming Petraeus to a job that lasts into the next administration, Bush ensures that the new president will confront the military’s strongest voice for maintaining a big force in Iraq.
This is, however, not because Petraeus is a Bush shill. It is because he is smart. The lesson from the beginning about the Iraq war has been that a massive troop presence has been and will be necessary. If one was to go at all – and it was such a stupid idea that even a victory there would be tantamount to a defeat – one had to go large.
Critics of Bush should be the first to acknowledge this. Bush is known for bottomless defense contract projects to private military companies. He is famed for not having enough troops to protect Iraqis, their natural treasures or their infrastructure, beside the oil ministry. His lack of troops left weapon caches unguarded, neighborhoods vulnerable to ethnic cleansing and our forces outstripped.
That Petraeus knows that he has to correct the basic inadequacy Bush inflicted on our threadbare military presence speaks to his intelligence. Now that we are in that strategic disaster, we need to have at least the minimum of troops necessary to accomplish our limited mission there.
But beyond this accidental similarity, Bush and Petraeus are fiercely divergent. Petraeus is a more devious and determined opponent to Bush’s policies than Moktada al-Sadr. A glance at the past shows this.
Remember how we support the Maliki government? As soon as Petraeus got in, he began raiding the militias that Maliki’s people were using to suck in arms from Iran. Maliki denounced him.
And remember how we don’t talk to terrorists, and are just fighting rogue elements? Petraeus’ arrival saw him cut a deal with Moktada al-Sadr via his Intelligence personnel, in defiance of Maliki and Bush both.
And remember all those contractors? Petraeus’ tenure has seen a shift away from the robber baron corporate handling of Iraq, with more local talent and Armed Forces’ elbow grease. It’s hardly an end to the defense industry bonanza, but he does what he can, and he does it in defiance of the “Bush war plan.”
It’s uncertain how this will pan out, regionally. Petraeus is almost certain to keep his focus on the clearest target America has: Al-Qaeda. That means a shift to Afghanistan. Even Barnes admits Petraeus’ control of “The Other War” means a change from the “Hold on for dear life” strategy we have now:
…as Centcom commander, Petraeus will have plenty of opportunities to inject new ideas into the Afghanistan fight. Petraeus knows how to work with allied commanders, and his reputation will ensure that people listen to his ideas, Crane said.
“This job will give Gen. Petraeus more of a chance to influence what is going on in Afghanistan,” said Crane, a retired Army colonel who helped Petraeus write the Army’s 2006 counterinsurgency field manual.
“If you were someone who thought Afghanistan was in need of a fresh approach, you should be excited about Gen. Petraeus’ appointment.”
Along with Afghanistan’s warring tribes and opium-dependent economy, Petraeus will inherit the problems of al-Qaeda’s actual core, Pakistan, and its brain and bloodstream, Saudi Arabia.
He will also be given power over the realm of the pirates off the enormous Horn of Africa, who this week struck twice again to seize hostages for ransom.
And, lastly and yet most significantly for the strategic direction of the US in the region, he will be given watch over the two nuclear aspirants in the Middle East – Syria and Iran. Balancing belligerence to counter actual belligerence from both nations, in Lebanon and Iraq respectively, will be a delicate act. It will surely win him little favor with the anti-war set, as Petraeus will not permit Iranian meddling in Iraq. But so long as there are opportunities for peace, as well as war, to exploit, Petraeus has shown himself canny to detect and seize on them. Syria’s proposal of a lasting peace agreement with Israel, centered around an exchange of control over the Golan Heights, could be such a promise.
Syria has said it will wait for a new administration to take power in the USA before actual talks with Israel begin. Just like with the missions in the various nations Petraeus takes over, so much depends on a new commander-in-chief in Washington.
Yet this much is certan: To look at Petraeus’ actual record is not to see a commander dedicated to a failed war policy. It is a portait of someone, like many Americans, who has simply been doing his level best to clean up the messes of the administration. It is not the promise of a continuation, but of change we can believe in.