When President Bush announced that General David Petraeus was going to become the point man for the "surge" in Iraq, and that he was going to give Congress a progress report in September, most of the media were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.
After all (so the story went) this was Bush's attempt to put someone with proven competence into the situation (Petraeus literally wrote the Army book on how to fight an insurgency); someone who could be trusted to speak the truth to power since he was non-partisan and trustworthy. The public image of Petraeus was very carefully spun to the media as someone who was not just a George Bush cheerleader, not just a cheerleader for success in Iraq; but rather someone who would take off the rosy-tinted glasses and tell Congress the truth about the situation on the ground.
Much of the Washington press corps bought into this story, and continues to assert its validity. The New York Times recently ran just such a story:
But for General Petraeus, being cast as the president's white knight has been a mixed blessing. While he talks with Mr. Bush once or twice a week, in interviews he depicts himself as owing loyalty as much to Congress as the White House and stresses the downside, as well as the upside, of the military effort here.
His view, he says, is that he is "on a very important mission that derives from a policy made by folks at one end of Pennsylvania Avenue, with the advice and consent and resources provided by folks at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. And in September, that's how I'm going to approach it." Whether to fight on here, he says, is a "big, big decision, a national decision," one that belongs to elected officials, not a field general.
The importance of sober assessments -- and, by implication, of shedding the rose-tinted view of the war that has strained Congress's patience with Iraq commanders in the past -- has been one of his themes. Talking to American officers this summer during a counterinsurgency course at Taji, 15 miles north of Baghdad, he put it squarely. "We need forthright reports. We're not trying to sugarcoat things, or put lipstick on a pig, or anything like that."
Our resident cartoonist begs to differ:
There are two parts to the Petraeus-is-trustworthy spin: that he's competent and knows what he's doing, and that he's not political and not partisan. But when you examine the evidence, this fantasy falls apart.
Firstly, Petraeus' supposed competence. Before he was put in charge of the surge, Petraeus was the man responsible for overseeing the training and equipping of the Iraq security forces. While this effort was successful (if you measure it by the amount of bragging to the media about how many Iraqis it had trained), it was not actually so successful in turning out soldiers that knew what they were doing. The Iraqi army and, especially, the Iraq national police, are heavily infiltrated by Shi'ite militias and death squads. Which Petraeus is directly responsible for.
But, believe it or not, that's not the worst mistake Petraeus made while in charge of training. That distinction is reserved for Petraeus losing 190,000 weapons while in charge of handing them out. That's right -- 110,000 AK-47s and 80,000 pistols are completely unaccounted for. The Pentagon can't even say whether these weapons were actually given to Iraqis being trained. Petraeus himself, being interviewed on Fox Radio, blamed inadequate accounting practices and not being able to record the serial numbers of weapons given out.
The Government Accountability Office (GAO) recommended that Defense Secretary Gates define some accountability procedures for the training program.
You think? Maybe it might have been a good idea to, you know, grab a pencil and a piece of paper and start writing down the serial numbers of the weapons we were apparently handing out like Halloween candy?
This isn't locking the barn door after the horse got out, it should be pointed out -- this is locking the barn door after the horse has been gone for four and a half years. And General Petraeus was the man responsible for that barn's security.
In another war, in another era, giving the enemy 190,000 free weapons would have been considered high treason, and anyone caught doing so might have been taken out and shot. Talk about "aid and comfort" to the enemy! Petraeus didn't just "aid" or "comfort" the enemy -- he actually armed them. At the very least, he should be court-martialed for such an abysmal lack of competence. In George Bush's administration, of course, he gets promoted and put in a position of responsibility. I'm surprised he didn't also get a medal.
The second part of the media spin job on Petraeus is just as easy to refute. The good general is supposed to be impartial, non-political, and non-partisan, and he never forgets birthdays. OK, I made that last one up. But it is in keeping with the other fictional parts of the story.
Here is Exhibit A for why this is pure hokum. General Petraeus wrote this op-ed article for the Washington Post on September 26, 2004. Note the timing -- this was just a month and a half before the upcoming presidential election.
This article is important to read for anyone who believes all the "impartial" manure the White House has been spreading around. Because it reads like a first draft of his September report to Congress. It's worth quoting at length:
Helping organize, train and equip nearly a quarter-million of Iraq's security forces is a daunting task. Doing so in the middle of a tough insurgency increases the challenge enormously, making the mission akin to repairing an aircraft while in flight -- and while being shot at. Now, however, 18 months after entering Iraq, I see tangible progress. Iraqi security elements are being rebuilt from the ground up.
The institutions that oversee them are being reestablished from the top down. And Iraqi leaders are stepping forward, leading their country and their security forces courageously in the face of an enemy that has shown a willingness to do anything to disrupt the establishment of the new Iraq.
In recent months, I have observed thousands of Iraqis in training and then watched as they have conducted numerous operations. Although there have been reverses -- not to mention horrific terrorist attacks -- there has been progress in the effort to enable Iraqis to shoulder more of the load for their own security, something they are keen to do. The future undoubtedly will be full of difficulties, especially in places such as Fallujah. We must expect setbacks and recognize that not every soldier or policeman we help train will be equal to the challenges ahead.
Nonetheless, there are reasons for optimism. Today approximately 164,000 Iraqi police and soldiers (of which about 100,000 are trained and equipped) and an additional 74,000 facility protection forces are performing a wide variety of security missions. Equipment is being delivered.
He's actually bragging about delivering thousands of weapons. Except that now, of course, he can't say who has those weapons, or whether they're being used to kill Americans.
The whole thing is worth reading if you're experiencing Rosy Scenario Withdrawal upon hearing that Karl Rove is quitting. This article was written three years ago, remember. The level of cheerful optimism is striking:
I meet with Iraqi security force leaders every day. Though some have given in to acts of intimidation, many are displaying courage and resilience in the face of repeated threats and attacks on them, their families and their comrades. I have seen their determination and their desire to assume the full burden of security tasks for Iraq.
There will be more tough times, frustration and disappointment along the way. It is likely that insurgent attacks will escalate as Iraq's elections approach. Iraq's security forces are, however, developing steadily and they are in the fight. Momentum has gathered in recent months. With strong Iraqi leaders out front and with continued coalition -- and now NATO -- support, this trend will continue. It will not be easy, but few worthwhile things are.
When Petraeus' op-ed article was published, 1,050 American soldiers had died in Iraq. Since it was published, over 2,600 more have perished.
But that's not the point. Petraeus was shortsighted and didn't predict the future accurately. That can be forgiven. What absolutely cannot be forgiven is the fact that six weeks before a presidential election, a military officer wrote an op-ed for a leading newspaper that painted a rosy picture of the future of Iraq (which has since proven to be false). This is meddling in American politics, which military officers are just not supposed to do.
Which is why portraying Petraeus as some sort of rational voice on the war is ridiculous on the face of it. He has already proven that he will do all whatever it takes to help George Bush in any way he can. Write an op-ed to influence the election? Sure, no problem, George!
Which is also why it's a safe bet that Petraeus' long-awaited September report to Congress is going to present the situation in the best possible light, both for Petraeus and for President Bush. Petraeus is going to use his report to blow sunshine up the skirt of the American public.
Lipstick on the pig, indeed.
Chris Weigant blogs at: ChrisWeigant.com