Ambition and General Petraeus

The senators should address General Petraeus from a stance of respectful
equality and distance. He is good at his work, but his profession differs
fundamentally from theirs. He is a military officer. They are lawmakers. They
have a civic obligation to compare all the available sources of evidence before
imposing an additional tour of duty on a single American soldier.

There will be no surprise in the picture this president's general brings from
the field. He will issue a mixed, but somewhat promising, report. He will offer
the brightest prognosis he can summon while acknowledging the dismal facts. He will
relate anecdotes of partial success that cries out for completion, and will
speak of his determination to persist in a task made graver by the suffering he
has witnessed.

David Petraeus has come far and fast from a combination of efficiency,
intelligence, and charm. Essentially he is a general of the MacArthur not the
Eisenhower type. Keen on publicity, and well-versed in its arts, he won the
admiration of war reporters during the first years of the Iraq war, and emerged
as one of the heroes of Thomas Ricks's mostly excellent and undeceived Fiasco.
He owes his present job, in some part, to an op-ed he published before the 2004
election
, in support of the president's conduct of the war.

He is using publicity cunningly now again to shade the advance coverage of his
testimony--a "face to face interview" on August 31 in The Australian, and an
e-mail interview today in the Boston Globe. General Petraeus is a careful
talker whose judgments all forget one fact about the nature of military
intervention in a faraway land. You are intruding on the people who live there.
One can look with respect at the American soldiers in Iraq, and still ask with
bewilderment: what are they doing there? The president's tactical supporters in
the mainstream press and politics speak every day with growing assurance of the
disastrous cost to Iraq of the American army leaving soon. And yet, every poll
starting in 2005 shows that a majority of Iraqis want us to leave. Are
Americans more reliably equipped than Iraqis to judge the consequences of our
departure?

Given the decorum that tends to subdue all military criticism of the military,
it is astounding how many officers have recorded some disagreement with the
Bush-Petraeus escalation. The dissenters include generals Casey and Pace, and
more recently Admiral Fallon and Retired General James Jones. Evidently, these
officers, when they hear General Petraeus venture a wishful analogy between
Iraq and Northern Ireland, have no trouble detecting the grossness of the
fallacy. The worst day in Belfast might look toward some eventual improvement;
after all, by 1970, Drogheda, Wexford, and Limerick were 300 years in the past.
Whereas the tortures of Abu Ghraib and the demolition of Falluja are part of the
living memory of every Iraqi over the age of seven. The British Army and the
Royal Ulster Constabulary, it may also be remembered, spoke the language of the
country they were in.

Ambition is a peculiar thing. When you see the footage of General Petraeus
striding with his army guard in Baghdad, sharing with reporters his familiar
knowledge of the facts on the ground, ordering walls to be built and protection
given for the right part of the populace and calling in air strikes to wipe out
the wrong part--you are seeing a man in his element. He loves this command. It
suits his life-preparation as nothing else could do; it rounds out, with
practice, the theory he codified in his manual on guerrilla wars. But he is
living a contradiction. His manual made it clear that a mission of this scope
could never succeed without far more troops than the U.S. can hope to supply.

None of the contradictions matter to Petraeus. He cannot afford to let them
matter. But a different sense of reality should prevail among the senators,
even as they listen to him politely. And let them not for a moment forget who
he is (since he himself will hardly forget). He is the man the president chose
for the public to believe in, now that they have done believing in George W.
Bush.