Blowing Off the PR Pixie Dust While Waiting for Petraeus

The White House is giving Gen. David Petraeus the most over-the-top PR push since the Segway's inventor predicted, "It's going to change the world."

The constant sprinkling of pixie dust is meant to render Petraeus' coming September report unassailable -- the political equivalent of basketball advice from John Wooden or a sex assessment by Jenna Jameson.

For months now, I've been trying to blow some of that pixie dust off Petraeus so that, come September, his vaunted report will be seen for what it inevitably will be: one more stall tactic designed to deny reality and delay the inevitable.

Does anyone doubt that when Mr. Petraeus Goes to Washington after Labor Day he will deliver a glass half-full assessment that "acknowledges some challenges" but concludes that "the surge is working" (don't forget those soccer fields!) and "just needs more time"?

Indeed, we already know Petraeus' thinking on the matter. The New York Times recently uncovered a classified plan that calls for U.S. troops to be in Iraq at least until the middle of 2009, and probably beyond. The co-author of that plan: Gen. David Petraeus.

Despite the White House's attempts at glorification -- by the Washington Post's count, the president has publicly mentioned Petraeus' name over 150 times since announcing the surge in January -- others in the media have recently joined the chorus of voices warning, Don't believe the hype!

In his latest column, Frank Rich took a chisel to the notion that Petraeus is the second coming of Grant, Patton, MacArthur, and Schwarzkopf all rolled into one Ivy League package.

Turns out that Petraeus' purported infallibility is as much a shimmering desert mirage as the Iraqi throngs who were going to greet us as liberators, throwing flowers at our soldiers' feet.

Rich lays it out chapter and verse: Petraeus was wrong about Mosul, he was wrong about the competency of newly-trained Iraqi troops, he was wrong about what he wishfully referred to as "the astonishing signs of normalcy" in Baghdad.

And he has also shown a special gift for thunderingly misguided comparisons, likening the political standoff in the Iraqi Parliament to disputes among our Founding Fathers, and straining to make the case that the civil war raging in Iraq is akin to the struggles Britain faced with the IRA in Northern Ireland. There are many problems with this last comparison, not the least of which is the fact that the IRA was never more than a thousand strong, and never embraced suicide bombing.

In April, I wondered whether, given all the hype, the General had "walked across the Potomac" on a recent visit to Capitol Hill. James Fallows has taken the metaphor another step, pointing out last week that Petraeus is Bush's New Jesus:

The New Jesus is the guy the boss has just brought in to solve the problems that the slackers and idiots already on the staff cannot handle. Of course sooner or later the New Jesus himself turns into a slacker or idiot, and the search for the next Jesus begins.


Petraeus is a serious man, but the expectations being heaped on him are simply laughable...

But for now, according to the White House script, Petraeus is The One Who is Going to Save Iraq.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki apparently has a different name for him: The One Who Must Leave Iraq. According to reports over the weekend, Maliki made a direct appeal to President Bush to remove Petraeus from his position.

Part of the Prime Minister's displeasure with Petraeus is the General's strategy of arming Sunni militias -- including forces that were at one time part of the insurgency. Though Bush was able to temporarily placate al-Maliki -- word is that during a satellite chat he told the PM to "calm down" -- it's unclear when al-Maliki will grow tired enough of Petraeus to remind Bush about that "transfer of full sovereignty" stuff from 2004. ("Hey, Mr. President... 'Let Freedom Reign,' remember?")

In the meantime, Bush continues to pretend to be taking a hands-off approach to Iraq, claiming: "I'm going to wait to see what David has to say." But, as we've seen, Bush cherry-picks the military commanders he listens to just as diligently as he cherry-picked pre-war intel.

The same administration that didn't know the difference between Sunni and Shia before the war -- and doesn't know the difference between Al Qaeda and Al Qaeda in Iraq now -- has somehow been incredibly effective at weeding out "insurgent" thought in the Pentagon. The "clear, hold and build" strategy wasn't so successful in Baghdad, but it's been a smashing success in Washington.

The question isn't what will happen in September. The question is what will happen when the New Jesus eventually proves to be just as powerless to change the laws of reality as his predecessors were.

With the past as prologue, my guess is that Bush will ultimately announce a major change in course. Sadly, this will not entail a new war policy, but rather the arrival of a new New Jesus.