One of the interesting things about the Petraeus scandal is that it has brought about a re-evaluation of the man the press called “King David”. No one came out of the Iraq fiasco with as strong a reputation. Almost everyone was tarnished by it … except Petraeus. But now some in the media, eager to tear down the latest idol, are turning on him. Probably one of the most revealing articles came from Spencer Ackerman:
Like many in the press, nearly every national politician, and lots of members of Petraeus’ brain trust over the years, I played a role in the creation of the legend around David Petraeus. Yes, Paula Broadwell wrote the ultimate Petraeus hagiography, the now-unfortunately titled All In. But she was hardly alone (except maybe for the sleeping-with-Petraeus part). The biggest irony surrounding Petraeus’ unexpected downfall is that he became a casualty of the very publicity machine he cultivated to portray him as superhuman. I have some insight into how that machine worked.
It’s worth a read. Petraeus is not the first general to work hard on maintaining his public image. Grant, Eisenhower, Pershing — all of them were well aware of the public’s fascination with our generals. Indeed, once a general becomes famous, maintaining a solid public image becomes critical. The media are all too eager to tear down a military icon when it suits them. George Patton was one of our best generals but was constantly in trouble and losing commands because his public image, during the war at least, was awful.
But were the plaudits completely undeserved?
It won’t take you long to find harsh assessments, especially when it comes to Afghanistan. But I keep circling back to the early days of Iraq, when Petraeus seemed to be the only one who understood how to work with the Iraqis. I keep going back to the Iraq surge. His critics are saying the violence was ending anyway because the Iraqis were growing tired of it. I find that dubious in the extreme. People never really tire of violence. Petraeus laid out a strategy for reducing the violence, executed it and saw the violence reduce. It would be an amazing coincidence if he had nothing to do with the improvement in conditions on the ground.
That this strategy failed in Afghanistan is not surprising because Afghanistan was a different problem. In Iraq, we were dealing with sectarian violence and could intervene productively. In Afghanistan, we’re dealing with an active resistance to our very presence.
I do think Ackerman makes one very good point:
The uncomfortable truth is that a lot of us who’ve covered Petraeus over the years could have written that. It’s embarrassingly close to my piece on Petraeus’ legacy that @bitteranagram tweeted. And that’s not something you should fault Petraeus for. It’s something you should fault reporters like me for. Another irony that Petraeus’ downfall reveals is that some of us who egotistically thought our coverage of Petraeus and counterinsurgency was so sophisticated were perpetuating myths without fully realizing it.
None of this is to say that Petraeus was actually a crappy officer whom the press turned into a genius. That would be just as dumb and ultimately unfair as lionizing Petraeus, whose affair had nothing to do with his military leadership or achievements. ”David Petraeus will be remembered as the finest officer of his generation, and as the commander who turned the Iraq War around,” e-mails military scholar Mark Moyar. But it is to say that a lot of the journalism around Petraeus gave him a pass, and I wrote too much of it. Writing critically about a public figure you come to admire is a journalistic challenge.
I don’t think it’s just the media; all of us wanted him to be more than just a good general and an admirable man, which he still is. We wanted him to be something almost God-like; the man who could rescue Iraq, turn Afghanistan around, remake the CIA and (most likely) become a great President one day. It was an offshoot of the military being the most respected and beloved institution in the nation, with approval ratings that are usually several times that of politicians.
Petraeus’ downfall reminds us that he is human and has both professional and personal failings. But let’s not let it wipe away the good marks on his record, which are many.