Army Generals Playing James Madison

Active or retired United States Army generals like David Petraeus advising on political arrangements in foreign lands to promote peace, government legitimacy, and liberty are like dogs walking on his their hind legs. As British sage Samuel Johnson would have said, "It is not done well, but you are surprised to find it done at all."

Architecting institutions to secure liberty by thwarting the sordid ambitions of politicians by long-headed diffusions of power among rival factions is the most challenging endeavor known to mankind. The architect must command a mastery of ulterior motives, the crooked timber of humanity, and the personalities of political institutions that override the personalities of the individual occupants That mastery requires a meticulous study of political communities and the human condition from the beginning of recorded history; and, political experience that imparts knowledge of the narcissism, ignorance and tribalism that earmark the political class. It is the work of a lifetime. Only a handful has ever attained this level of political genius.

James Madison was one. He is to political science what Albert Einstein is to physics. Among other things, Mr. Madison was the father of the United States Constitution and Bill of Rights, Member of Congress, Secretary of State, twice United States President, member of the Virginia legislature, delegate to the continental congress under the Articles of Confederation, and author of a Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments, the precursor to Virginia's landmark Statute for Religious Freedom.

In preparing for the constitutional convention of 1787, Madison read voraciously, and authored "Vices of the Political System of the United States" and "Ancient and Modern Confederacies." A small sample of Madison's infinite learning included the following:

Horace, Justinian, Ovid, Terence, Sallust, the New Testament, Homer, Xenophon, Demosthenes, Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Shakespeare, Addison, Milton, Smollett's History of England, Montaigne's Essays, Montesquieu's The Spirit of Laws, Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Bunyan, Grotius, Sydney ,Coke, Blackstone, Voltaire, Gibbon, Priestly, Dryden, Tillotson, Newton, Defoe, Bacon, Trenchard, Pope, and Samuel Johnson.

The Constitution, which was largely Madison's handiwork, earned the effusive praise of British
Prime Minister William Gladstone: "[T]he most wonderful work ever struck off at a given
time by the brain and purpose of man." Despite Madison's miracle at Philadelphia, the nation split asunder in 1861, after earlier near misses with the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, the Hartford Convention, and the Tariff of Abominations.

In sum, architecting the diffusion of power to secure liberty, government legitimacy, and efficacy is no job for amateurs. When that happens, the results are uniformly grim. United States amateurs in high executive branch offices have unwittingly fueled tribal, ethnic, or sectarian strife in Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Yemen, South Sudan, and Syria, among other places.

Military officers are trained to kill, not to draft constitutions or political dispensations of less dignity. It is altogether fitting that this is so. Their exclusive duty is to kill the enemy, simpliciter. Thus, General George C. Patton's military greatness in World War II was not diminished by his naïve likening of the Nazi party to Democrats and Republicans in the United States.

Wise persons know what they don't know. But the rich, famous, or beautiful commonly come to believe their ignorance is wisdom because what they say no matter how unschooled or idiotic is reported in the media and received with awe by their admiring flocks. Linus Pauling won a Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1954, which gave him an international platform and megaphone to campaign against nuclear weapons. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in October 1963, only weeks before the United States orchestrated the overthrow and assassination of South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem as a precursor to our full-fledged involvement in the grisly Vietnam War. Mr. Pauling was as clueless about peace as he was knowledgeable about chemistry.

Retired Army General Petraeus is a celebrity because of his much-lauded military performances in Afghanistan and Iraq. Like other celebrities, he is unable to resist the temptation to speak authoritatively on subjects far beyond his ken. Thus, writing in The Washington Post on August 14, 2016 ("For Mosul, learning from 2003"), the retired general opines on political arrangements in Mosul and Nineveh Province in Iraq that he conjectures will give birth to enlightened government, stability, and reconstruction following the defeat of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in those areas.

This is the Petraeus plan. Sunni Arabs, Kurds loyal to the Barzani clan and to theTalabani faction (both of which favor Kurdish independence), Shiite Arabs, Shiite and Sunni Turkmen, Yazidis, Christians, Shabak, and numerous tribes, after centuries of antagonism, join hands, in a Nineveh council. The Kurds volunteer to renounce independence or a variation. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who relies on Shiite militias to remain in power, volunteers to exclude them from Nineveh and bestow greater resources on a council over which he will command little or no influence. Everyone agrees to find common ground on issues that escape description. If they balk, the U.S.-led coalition will cajole them into becoming Canadians or else.

If I were a betting man, I would wager the retired Army general has refrained from putting his own money behind his own starry-eyed plan. It is like believing the Israeli-Palestinian divide could be bridged if the Knesset sat with the Palestinian Legislative Council. The Petraeus plan also wrongly assumes a United States capacity to influence foreign governments that does not exist. President Erdogan of Turkey and President el-Sisi of Egypt routinely ignore our exhortations, as did former President of Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh. Our political influence in post-Gaddafi Libya is miniscule. In post-Saddam Iraq, Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds, and Turkmen have repeatedly defied our commandments to unify around a rule of law that transcends tribal, ethnic, or sectarian divides. In Afghanistan, President Ashraf Ghani and CEO Abdullah Abdullah remain at loggerheads over our pleas to put aside political differences to better fight the Taliban and ISIS. The United States influence Petraeus assumes will make his plan work is a mirage.

In sum, when our military leaders begin to play James Madison in foreign nations, our troops should be immediately withdrawn. When our objectives are other than to kill, their role