Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Petraeus Dithers, Then Plays Ball

Michael Goldfarb is right to chastise some on the left for wanting to have it both ways regarding the Petraeus testimony--either Petraeus is a stooge for the Administration or he isn't. Here's the General's hand-wringing non-response to Sen. Warner's question of whether the Iraq war is making America safer:

"I don't know, actually. I have not sat down and sorted in my own mind."
That reaction seems to me to be a tacitly negative response. If he were truly the lapdog that he's been accused of being, he would have at least muttered something incoherent about success in Iraq being a "vital national interest" or something, but instead he hid behind what is, in all honesty, at least a somewhat legitimate dodge: it's not his job to assess the war's implications for the overall national security of the United States.

I say "somewhat legitimate," because, as a Four-Star General, one would think that he would have pondered this question at least a bit. Even if he hasn't spent his waking hours as MNF-I Commander agonizing over the pros and cons of the Iraq War vis-a-vis the threat to America proper, he certainly ought to have at least entertained some thoughts in that direction during the years he spent at the U.S. Army Combined Arms Center writing the Army's Counter-Insurgency doctrine. After all, he was back in the U.S. working explicitly on the Army's broader missions, which one would think would include things that fell under the heading of "support[ing] and defend[ing] the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign or domestic."

So actually, Petraeus should have been able to answer that question more fully at the time. Given the constraints of the political circus that his testimony could only be, I can understand why he would hesitate to dive right in with a bold declaration that the Iraq War is doing bupkis to protect America.

But then he got his bearings, remembered why he was there, and came clean in exactly the incoherent "vital interest" vein that we have come to expect from a political class that excels at saying nothing:
Candidly, I have been so focused on Iraq that drawing all the way out was something that for a moment there was a bit of a surprise.

But I think that we have very, very clear and very serious national interests in Iraq. Trying to achieve those interests — achieving those interests has very serious implications for our safety and for our security. So I think the answer really, to come back to it is yes.
"Very, very clear and very serious" national interests. Good boy. No word yet on what those interests actually are.

I suspect that his initial instinct--to run from that question with all his might because he knows the frank answer will be counter-productive to his Commander-in-Chief's staged love-in for a tragically ill-advised and destructive campaign--was borne out of unease. That hesitation betrayed a lot more about Petraeus' thoughts than anyone with a political axe to grind--left or right--is willing to admit.

I suspect that he is a man who is conflicted about the overall war, his role in it, and his responsibilities as a commander tasked with managing it. That he only came to his senses and played the political ball game when he had been allowed a moment to consider his options at least says that he has struggled with his faith.

Anyone who has ever believed in something and been put in a position where they had to act on those beliefs but entertained thoughts to the contrary should understand this. I know I do, because I came to Iraq the first time in 2004 with nothing but praise for the enterprise, only coming to realize that it was a bad idea and a lost cause after experience and reflection. That was a long process, though. Could General Petraeus be going through a similar existential crisis? I'd like to think so.

But even after changing my mind, I still had (and have) a job to do, as does Petraeus, only in a vastly more significant way. While I'm free to distance myself intellectually from the strategy and the entire war, he isn't. As Goldfarb concludes, "he's not there to defend the war--despite what the left is saying--he's there to defend the strategy." Goldfarb is right about that, but only in the sense that this "report" isn't really a report; it's a public relations campaign for a failed strategy. In a political culture that was less poisoned by naked partisanship, he would have been there to report on a strategy. But we always knew that wouldn't really be the case. Only a partisan hack like Goldfarb, however, would call that a good thing.

Cross-posted at Decline and Fall.