Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The Savior Generals by Victor Davis Hanson - Petraeus

The final general chronicled in Victor Davis Hanson’s The Savior Generals is David Petraeus. Calling his story, “Iraq is Lost,” Hanson starts the story from a rather grim place.

The battle in Iraq had begun with stunning success. Donald Rumsfield strategy of a “light footprint” had led to a lightning fast incursion into the country following the tragedy of 9/11. In less than 3 weeks, Saddam Hussein’s government was removed and the task of establishing an America-friendly regime seemed easily surmountable. 

Yet almost immediately the complexity of the situation sank in and the initial flush of an easy victory faded. No stockpiles of WMD were found. The country became chaotic. No one seemed to be in charge. Conventional weapons were not guarded and were looted, providing the enemy with artillery. The administration began to publicly feud over how to lead a headless Iraq to a peaceful resolution. 

At home, the vaunted “light footprint” became a subject of much debate. Did we send in too few troops? Too many? Should we have even gone in the first place? Was the whole thing a mistake based on a lie/misinformation?

The first thing the military administration did was to cleanse the government of those loyal to Saddam, the baathists. This seemed reasonable, yet instantly the country was deprived of most of its bureaucratic apparatus and most competent workers. Left high and dry, it was an easy decision for them to joint the insurgent. Meanwhile, the majority Shiite population saw Saddam’s demise as an opportunity to rise out of the oppression they felt under the previously Sunni government and become the oppressors. 

As the counterinsurgency became more deadly to American forces, the American people began to turn against what seemed to be an increasingly hopeless endeavor based on naively optimistic projections. President Bush’s claim that freedom was a universal value and the Iraqi’s would welcome us a liberators looked more and more like wishful thinking. 

The military argued for an even smaller force to counter anti-Americanism, or more nation-building, or more targeting of known terrorists and their hubs. But a maverick named David Petraeus argued we actually needed a completely different strategy. Although everyone agreed the status quo was not working, very few believed Petraeus’ idea to temporarily “surge” the number of forces in Iraq. Petraeus envisioned a counterinsurgency to the counterinsurgency. He would work to make areas of Iraq calmer and more secure by inserting enough forces to protect the civilians and deprive the insurgents the necessary support and sanctuary they needed from the population.

After a particularly harsh election rebuke in 2006, Bush was willing to listen to small group, led by the charismatic Petraeus, and their surge strategy. They advocated three elements. The first was to increase the troops by 20-30,0000. The second was to promote Petraeus to the position of supreme commander in Iraq. And the third was to complete replace the methods of fighting as well as the people overseeing the fighting and reconstruction in Iraq. Bush grabbed the lifeline being offered, hoping a war-weary public would support a large-scale change of tactics while never using the Vietnam-era tainted word, “escalation.”

Once the plan was accepted, commanders in Iraq began implementing the changes even prior to the arrival of the new troops. Instead of safely hunkering in the green zones, troops were sent out into smaller outposts inside Baghdad’s neighborhoods, creating a much more conspicuous presence. Rather than drum up more anti-American sentiment, the troops were seen as reassuring to the population. However the downside of the exposure of troops led, temporarily to more American deaths. Initial fears of Vietnam style body bags overwhelming the news Americans received quickly vanished as the death count soon plummeted with the arrival of the new troops. 

Like all the other Savior Generals, Petraeus had spent a lifetime preparing for just this sort of role. All his life experiences had served to make him and expert in “large-scale postbellum occupation and reconstruction in highly urbanized, extremely hostile populations -- exactly what Iraq would be like in 2003.” He was the perfect man for the job. His success in Iraq led to changing opinions of the war at home and silenced critics in the Congress who wanted to cut and run. The quote that started this section, “Iraq is lost.” came from the mouth of Harry Reid. Petraeus made that kind of rhetoric cease. 

He curbed the American casualties suffered because of crude roadside explosive devices by embedding more troops within the population to gain better intelligence concerning the bombing crews. He requisitioned better, though less maneuverable, tanks that could protect against the bombs. The plummeting death toll had the intended effect of boosting morale with the troops and people at home. 

Like most of the other Savior Generals, Petraeus life after his astounding victory was rocky. He went onto assume the command of CENTCOM, “the most prestigious and important regional theater of operations.” He led the counterterrorism operation in 20 countries as well as overseeing Iraq and Afghanistan. 

But once General Stanley McChrystal was abruptly relieved of his post as commander in Afghanistan for indiscreet comments, Petraeus was asked to actually take a step down and head up the efforts in that flailing contest. Afghanistan did not prove as successful for Petraeus, and after a year, he stepped down to head the CIA. Later a scandal in his marriage led him to resign that post as well. 

America, with Obama at the helm, seems intent on reversing the gains in Iraq made by Petraeus. Unfortunately we fail to realize how much Petraeus did for America and the perception of it around the world. He restored our military reputation and made sure the world knew we could and would win when we set our mind to it. But we seem to have forgotten that lesson and are throwing away the accomplishment of a great leader. 

Maybe it’s time for Savior General here at home. 

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