Watching Congress grovel, slobber and genuflect before the Surge-Master, you have to wonder who appointed David Petraeus God. If anyone expected this to be a roasting of our military and civilian leaders by our country's legislators, over a deeply unpopular and disastrous war, they were with few exceptions disappointed. Over and over, members of Congress made a point of telling us about their day or two of living dangerously when they had been whisked in high security in and out of Iraq and became instant experts after some Vulcan mind-melding with Gen. Petraeus. There were far more self-serving speeches and idolatrous praise-givings than tough cross-examinations. Senator Barbara Boxer even produced a poster-size picture of her with Petraeus in Iraq, but at least she upbraided the general for the rose-tinted glasses he had been wearing in early descriptions of the situation in Iraq. Most of the rest of the committee members were seated docilely in the choir pews, muttering amens. They seemed if anything more concerned with repudiating the attack ad on "General Betray-us" published the day the hearings opened than with doing any serious cross-examining of the commander of our mess in Mesopotamia.
David Petraeus is perfectly cast in that role. He rose to fame not by his achievements but by his success in selling them as achievements. He's first of all a great communicator. When he was the commander in Mosul, in northern Iraq, at a time when the city was relatively quiet compared to Baghdad and central Iraq, he managed to persuade a host of journalists that Mosul demonstrated that he knew how to do it—unlike the idiot generals down in Baghdad. (He never actually put it like that; he was far too careful a politician for any such indiscretions.) There was always a seat on his chopper for a visiting reporter, and Petraeus—with his self-confident, intelligent patter and apparent accessibility and openness—made friends of many of them.
In retrospect, though, Mosul was just a happy accident on Petraeus's path to divinity. He had an entire division, one of our best, the 101st Airborne, to police a place that was already quiet and never gave any more than token resistance during the invasion. After he left, the task fell to a mere brigade; Mosul heated up (it's now one of the worst places in Iraq), and many of Petraeus's much lauded counterinsurgency measures—the local television reality shows, the community outreach, the citizens' councils—all fell apart.
By then Petraeus had moved onward and upward and taken command of the training program for Iraqi security forces. About that time NEWSWEEK put him on our cover in a fawning report (which, full disclosure, I wrote) entitled "Can This Man Save Iraq?" with the clear implication that he could.
Training the Iraqi military and shifting responsibility to them was the mantra Petraeus sold to hundreds of credulous reporters and hundreds of even more credulous visiting CODELs (congressional delegations). We would "stand them up" and then sit back in our comfortably safe bases and support Iraqi security forces with rapidly declining numbers of our own troops. Petraeus didn't invent that strategy, but he was its most visible and ardent champion and the general in charge of setting up the training program. After a year he left Iraq to spend a tour stateside, during which he produced the Army's new counterinsurgency manual. By the time he left, the training program was clearly on its way to spectacular failure. By the end of last year that had become received wisdom; it became convenient for the brass to blame the fiasco on the politically less popular and media-friendless Gen. George Casey. Entire brigades of police had to be pulled off the street and retrained because they were evidently riddled with death squads and in some cases even with insurgents. The Iraqi Army was all but useless, a feeble patient kept on life support by the American military.
Re-enter Petraeus, anointed by President Bush to take over and breathe new life into the effort—proof, if any were needed, that in Iraq nothing succeeds so well as failure. Promoted to become one of the army's youngest four-star generals at the age of 54, Petraeus was put in charge of finding a new strategy to repudiate the train-them-up-and-turn-it-over strategy. Dwight D. Eisenhower got his fourth star at age 53, but Petraeus is no Ike, and Iraq is no World War II. Still, it's the only war we've got, and he's our only hero.
According to Petraeus's own counterinsurgency manual, the mission in Iraq requires many more troops than we've committed to it—at least half a million, with 120,000 projected to subdue Baghdad alone (compared with the 130,000 we have in the entire country now). Thence the surge, which Petraeus rammed through using his considerable influence and prestige in Congress and among the press, conveniently overlooking the fact that a piddling increase of 30,000 troops, while a tremendous strain on an already overstretched military, was still far short of what Iraq needs to be brought under control. By concentrating those troops in Baghdad, and spreading them wide and thin at dozens of small outposts, and urging them to get out and patrol rather than cower behind blast walls, the surge has indeed improved the statistics locally, particularly in Baghdad. But the insurgency just metastasizes elsewhere, to places like Diyala. And one important statistic, coalition casualties, has greatly worsened thanks to the surge. In the first eight months of this year U.S. fatalities were 50 percent or more higher than in any similar period in the war so far (739 by the end of August, compared with 462 during January- August 2006, according to Iraq Coalition Casualty Count, which bases its statistics on Pentagon data). In the meantime, for want of enough troops elsewhere, the U.S. has lost the south and its strategic oilfields to warring Shiite militias and their Iranian sponsors, as the ever-dwindling British contingent has withdrawn to fortifications at the Basra airport.
It is striking that at the moment, in Baghdad at least, the bad guys are largely holding their fire. But can that really be credited to the surge? Possibly. But just as possibly the insurgents may simply be saving their ammunition for a major offensive come Ramadan, which starts this week.
Or perhaps they hope to encourage the Americans to draw back down, knowing that once they do so all the surge gains will evaporate as quickly as peace fled Mosul in Petraeus's wake. The whole point of the surge was to create a security environment in which the political players could peacefully settle their quarrels. But instead what has happened is a massive sectarian cleansing of neighborhoods and towns, continued and even accelerated refugee flight, and no significant progress on the political front in the last year, even during Baghdad's Pax Petraeus. As Ambassador Ryan Crocker put it, "Abandoning or drastically curtailing our efforts will bring failure, and the consequences of such a failure must be clearly understood by us all. An Iraq that falls into chaos or civil war will mean massive human suffering, well beyond what has already occurred." The success of the surge, such as it is, hardly makes a good argument for withdrawing troops; just the opposite, it argues for even more. Petraeus's assertion, qualified as it is, that he sees an opportunity to reduce troops to presurge levels by next summer is motivated more by Washington politics, and the stress on the U.S. military, than the realities on the ground in Iraq. He dare not speak the truth, because to do so would include one of two words, both forbidden in the American political liturgy: defeat and draft.
It's hard not to like David Petraeus, and I have to say I do. He's an admirable leader, an amazing individual, an impressive intellect. But when it comes to Iraq, despite the worshipful attitude in Congress, he's hardly our lord and savior.