The Legend of David Petraeus - Rolling Stone
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The Legend of David Petraeus

America’s most famous soldier has always been a skilled media manipulator. But after reading a fawning new biography, you have to wonder if he’s losing his touch.

David Petraeus on the flightline of Forward Base Wilson west of Kandahar, Kandahar Province, Afghanistan.

The genius of David Petraeus has always been his masterful manipulation of the media. But after reading the new biography about him – All In: The Education of David Petraeus, by former Army officer Paula Broadwell – I’ve started to wonder if he’s losing his touch. The best spinsters never make their handiwork too obvious; they allow all parties to retain a semblance of dignity. Yet the Petraeus-approved All In is such blatant, unabashed propaganda, it’s as if the general has given up pretending there’s a difference between the press and his own public relations team. As Gen. John Galvin, an early mentor, explains to a young David in one of the book’s few revealing moments, “Through your mythology people create you…. You become part of the legend.” All In is best understood as the latest – and least artful – contribution to the Petraeus legend.

For P4, as Petraeus is known in military circles, this is about the fourth high-profile book he has collaborated on. He debuted on the literary scene as a young general “coming of age” during the 2003 invasion of Iraq in Rick Atkinson’s In The Company of Soldiers. (“Petraeus kept me at his elbow virtually all day, every day,” writes Atkinson.) He reappeared as a brilliant strategist in a 2008 snoozer called Tell Me How This Ends by Linda Robinson. (Soon after publishing the book, Robinson, a reporter for U.S. News and World Report, went on to take a job working for Petraeus as an analyst at the U.S. Central Command.) Then, retired journalist turned military blogger Tom Ricks thoroughly lionized him in the highly readable and on-the-knees-admiring The Gamble: General David Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq, which credits the general’s “surge” strategy with turning that war around. Three for three.

Broadwell’s contribution to the genre started brewing after she met Petraeus at the Harvard Kennedy School of government in 2006, while getting her master’s degree. As she recalls in her book’s preface, the two hit it off, the general viewing Broadwell as “an aspiring soldier-scholar.”  Both were West Point grads, sharing interests in counterinsurgency and counterterrorism. They soon started emailing. “I took full advantage of his open-door policy to seek insight and share perspectives,” she writes. In 2008, Broadwell began her doctoral dissertation, “a case study of General Petraeus’s leadership.” After President Obama picked Petraeus, in June 2010, to take over the war in Afghanistan, she decided to turn the dissertation into a book. Petraeus invited her to Kabul, where she would spend several months “observing Petraeus and his team” and conducting “numerous interviews and email exchanges with Petraeus and his inner circle.”

The result is a work of fan fiction so fawning that not even Max Boot – a Petraeus buddy and Pentagon sock puppet – could bring himself to rave about it, grouching in The Wall Street Journal about All In’s “lack of independent perspective” and the authors’ tendency to skirt conflict. (Boot, the hackiest of the neocon hacks, is now an advisor to Mitt Romney.)

You don’t have to read far into the book to see what Boot means. All In opens with Petraeus sitting “deep in thought” on the way to the White House, where President Obama is about to offer him the Afghanistan job. It’s one of the most dramatic moments in recent military history – the president handing the poisoned chalice of the war back to the man who designed the doomed strategy to win it. What were the general’s thoughts? How’d the meeting go? We learn only that Petraeus “pledged fealty to the civil military hierarchy.”

By Chapter 2 we’re in Afghanistan, with Petraeus gazing out of a plane window on the “barren, brown mountains of the Hindu Kush” with a “twinge of anticipation.” Explains Broadwell: “He knew the challenges below…. Those challenges were now his to master.” The troops we’re full of admiration. “It was clear to me he was a commander’s commander,” she quotes one subordinate saying of Petraeus, on the record. Lt. Colonel David Fivecoat, a Petraeus acolyte who once did a stint as a public affairs officer, puts in, “Petraeus, in his relentlessly positive way, would say, you know, keep pushing it, every day, trying to do as much as you can.” And in case the reader is in any doubt as to where she’s coming from, Broadwell helpfully explains – and this is a typical sentence – “I will note in the pages that follow that [Petraeus] is driven and goal-oriented, but his energy, optimism and will to win stand out more for me than the qualities seized on by his critics. Serving, in his mind, is winning.”

Well, Petraeus didn’t win in Afghanistan – unless one defines winning the Charlie Sheen sense of the word. Rather, he proposed and followed a counterinsurgency strategy that was expensive, bloody, and inconclusive. One could argue – many have, myself included – that Afghanistan is unwinnable in any meaningful sense, a colossal and futile waste of blood and treasure with only a tenuous connection to America’s national security interests. But that’s an idea that doesn’t seem to occur to Broadwell.  “History has yet to fully judge Petraeus’s service in Iraq and Afghanistan,” she claims. Well, let me be the first to render a full judgment: Petraeus’s Afghan war was an epic fail.

All In has a very different message to convey, a message straight from Team Petraeus – that Afghanistan, if it doesn’t work out, is not the general’s fault. Rather, it’s Obama’s fault, for not listening to Petraeus – for refusing him all the tens of thousands of more troops he wanted. As Petraeus confidante retired Army colonel Keith Nightingale is heard to muse upon P4’s assignment to Afghanistan: “If Petraeus could pull a rabbit out of the hat …, so much the better. If he couldn’t, Obama would be able to say he’d done all that he could by appointing America’s best general to command – and blame Petraeus.”

Meanwhile, Iraq – the scene, supposedly, of Petraeus’s greatest triumph – remains mired in brutal civil strife. Broadwell writes twice that Petraeus went to Iraq in 2007 to “pull the country back from the brink of civil war.” But there was no “brink”; Iraq had been in a full-scale civil war for at least two years by that point, and Petraeus’s real success was in fully backing the Shiite side over the Sunni side, hardly a recipe for mending Iraq’s murderous ethnic divisions in the long run.  

Time and again Broadwell takes Petraeus’s public statements at face value. So, for example, she quotes a  speech he gave at a Fourth of July celebration in Kabul. “‘Cooperation is not optional,’ he stated firmly. ‘Civilian military, Afghan and international, we are part of one team with one mission …. And I know you all share the unshakeable commitment to teamwork that Ambassador Eikenberry [America’s chief diplomat in Kabul] and I share.'” Broadwell’s own reporting tells a different story. On page 42 – and this is actual news – we learn that “Petraeus stopped including Eikenberry in most of his personal meetings with Karzai because of the unhelpful atmosphere generated by his presence, according to Petraeus’s aides.” Later, on page 177, we find out that Petraeus became the “gatekeeper” for access to Karzai, usurping the role of the civilian diplomat. “‘You won’t get access through Karzai through that group,’ he said. ‘You’ll get it through me.'” After Petraeus met Karzai for the first time as the commanding general we discover that it “did not go particularly well.” How so? Broadwell doesn’t elaborate. I’ve reported on the tensions between Petraeus and Eikenberry and Karzai (tensions they of course have denied), but the fact that the top military commander booted the top diplomat out of meetings with President Karzai tells you all you need to know about the much vaunted “civ-mil” relations that Petraeus holds so dear. If Broadwell finds this somewhat problematic, she doesn’t say.

There’s plenty of potential in All In – the 150 interviews and incredible access to Petraeus’s command could have yielded something valuable, or, at the very least, something competent. Instead, we’re left to read between the lines and pan for what stray nuggets the book contains. And what do those nuggets tell us? Not nearly enough. Broadwell gives us the first detailed account of a December 2010 meeting between Petraeus and Secretary of Defense Bob Gates to discuss Petraeus’s going over to the CIA. Gates tells him the post of Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the military’s top job, is “out the question” – a potentially amazing scene. Why not give the nation’s most successful general the job he most wants? Is it because the White House is sick of him? Is Obama worried about giving him a platform for a future political career? Or is it that General Martin E. Dempsey, who replaced Admiral Mike Mullen at the JCS, outmaneuvered him? Or did Mullen – no Petraeus fan, according to my sources – stab him in the back? Astonishingly, Broadwell, if she knows, doesn’t tell us. Nor, equally amazing, is she inclined to speculate (or, you know, report). Instead we get this: “Petraeus’s mind whirled, even though, as he told a close friend, he’d had distinctly mixed feelings about the position…. Being told it was out of the question stung.”

Nevertheless, for all her exertions on Petraeus’s behalf, Broadwell ends up inadvertently confirming much of what his harshest critics have said about him – namely, that’s he not just an ambitious aw-shucks fellow, but can really be a sneaky and ruthless bastard, too.  For instance, he throws his predecessor in Afghanistan, Gen. McChrystal, under the bus in the same way he does Eikenberry. Though Broadwell notes what great friends Petraeus and McChrystal are, she allows P4 to take his shots, as here: “Unspoken was Petraeus’s sense that McChrystal’s command had overpromised in Marjah [site of his largest military operation in southern Afghanistan] and paid a price publically….” (Well, not “unspoken” any more!); and here: Petraeus sought “more clarity,” [on rules of engagement established by McChrystal] and found “the fault lay not so much with McChrystal’s directive but with subordinate commanders who added conditions that made it more difficult for U.S. and NATO forces to fight.” So it’s no longer the commander’s fault when folks under his command don’t follow orders properly, or that the orders are so confused his soldiers can’t make sense of them? She also notes in passing that Petraeus had to make  “considerable modification[s]” to one of McChrystal’s campaign plans.  Broadwell also lets Petraeus take a jab at his former superior, Gen. John Abizaid, contrasting Abizaid’s implied laziness to P4’s hard-driving ethos: “While Abizaid was happy to relax over beer with his men after a maneuver, Petraeus wanted to conduct an after action review – and then challenge everyone to a run – and then have a beer.”

If you think such sniping is beneath America’s most illustrious soldier, I’d refer you to my own reporting. As Gen. John Vines, a contemporary of Petraeus’s throughout his career, confided to colleagues: “Petraeus leaves the dead dog at your door step…. Every time.” Or, as another military official put it: “He has the ability to make anyone who comes before him look like a total fuck up.” (Those perspectives aren’t in Broadwell’s book but in mine, The Operators, where you’ll find a more skeptical take on the general.)

I probably should mention that my Rolling Stone profile on Gen. McChrystal – which, after President Obama read it, contributed to his decision to remove McChrystal from his post as commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan – makes a number of appearances in the book, including one where a Petraeus advisor warns him of potentially “Rolling Stone-esque moments” in the portrayal of him in Bob Woodward’s book Obama’s Wars. Alas, Broadwell could have used a few of those in this account – no doubt she has them.

To judge this book as a book, though, misses the point. This is a biography written by a semi-official spokesperson. It does contain a few interesting bits that more rigorous journalists will be keen to follow up on, but it’s chief interest is as a rough draft of the latest myth Petraeus is selling the American public: We won Iraq and we’re on the verge of a great victory in Afghanistan – and Petraeus is the main reason why. Are you buying it?

Michael Hastings is a contributing editor to Rolling Stone and the author of The Operators: The Wild and Terrifying Inside Story of America’s War in Afghanistan.


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