March 6, 2007

King David

It's no secret that the Bush surge strategy has a narrow political window to show success, and that the pressure mainly falls on the man who now commands the troops in Iraq. David Petraeus has carved out enough political support to get most of what he wants in the short term, and he has the fortitude to do whatever he feels necessary to win -- or to pull the plug:

Petraeus's willingness to kick out against authority is the untold story of an otherwise orthodox career - and offers a clue to what may happen next in Iraq. He has surrounded himself in Baghdad with a team of officers described as "defence dissidents". His intellectual restlessness is typified by his now famous quizzing of an embedded reporter during the 2003 march on Baghdad. "Tell me how this ends," he repeatedly demanded. Now he has a chance to answer his own question.

Petraeus's scrappy, relentless, questing style could spell trouble for the White House. He knows he does not have enough troops and more will not be forthcoming. According to O'Hanlon, he knows political and public backing for the war is "very fragile".

So during his congressional testimony Petraeus made clear that by late summer he would report back to Congress and the American people, not just to the Pentagon and president. "I want to assure you that should I determine that the new strategy cannot succeed, I will provide such an assessment," he said.

That bold move potentially gives Petraeus considerable political leverage and practical autonomy. Yet the White House needs him badly. "If he were to resign, their last shred of credibility on Iraq would disappear," said one analyst.

The Bush administration gave whatever it had left of its credibility to Petraeus when it promoted him as General Casey's successor. Congress gave him what little authority they would cede when he made that bold statement on calling a halt to the American effort there if he saw it failing. He owns the Iraq war now, for all intents and purposes, and according to the Guardian's sources, he knows it. He has made sure that everyone else associated with the effort knows it, too, causing some to give him the nickname "King David".

That may be a good sign in itself. Colorless apparatchiks rarely make good field commanders. In war, the most successful usually exhibit strong self-confidence and a habit of commanding rather than taking votes. Some of America's best commanders got forged in the crucible of difficult circumstances: George Washington, Ulysses Grant, Jack Pershing, Bull Halsey, George Patton, Douglas MacArthur. The latter two took it too far, and wound up getting cashiered for it, of course, which is the risk one runs with battlefield geniuses.

The Guardian tells an interesting story about Petraeus, one CQ readers probably already know but I missed. In 1991, Petraeus got shot in the chest in a Fort Campbell training exercise. Medics rushed him to Vanderbilt University, where a cardiac surgeon spent five hours repairing the damage and saving his life. The man who directed the surgery was none other than future Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, who recalled his patient when visiting Europe in 2004, saying that Petraeus has a good heart -- and Frist had held it in his hands.

His heart has not been questioned since then, and will likely not be questioned now. Petraeus has the tenacity and the fortitude to see this through to success, if success is possible. He needs only the support of his country and the time to get the job done. Hopefully, Petraeus will not have to question his nation's heart before persevering to victory.


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