Enter a new potential candidate for the presidency of the United States. He is four-star Gen. David Petraeus, whose military tactics have crushed a democracy-threatening insurgency in Iraq, and whose tactical game plan in Afghanistan may do the same there.
Well, you may say, Americans are not particularly cordial to the idea of a general in the White House. The last one was Gen. Dwight Eisenhower. Gen. Colin Powell toyed with the prospect and decided against it. Gen. Wesley Clark sought the Democratic nomination in 2004 and failed.
Petraeus disavows any political ambitions. Even Col. Erik Gunhus, a former Special Forces officer and now Petraeus’s public affairs adviser, who spends 15 or 16 hours a day watching and traveling with Petraeus, says the man is not interested. What he really enjoys is schmoozing with intellectuals in mind-expanding discussions.
Petraeus is no mean intellectual himself. He graduated from the US Military Academy at West Point in the top 5 percent of his class, married the superintendent’s daughter, taught for two years at West Point’s social sciences department, and picked up master’s and PhD degrees at Princeton.
A lithe physical-fitness buff (he challenges young soldiers to push-up contests and usually wins), he has held a string of combat as well as staff assignments. He led the 101st Airborne Division (Screaming Eagles) in Iraq before becoming overall commander of US and allied forces there. Now he is commander of the US Central Command, embracing some of the most dangerous countries in the world, including Iraq and Afghanistan.
Petraeus may be a soldier-scholar, but he has always responded to the call of duty. If he indeed becomes the victorious mastermind behind America’s two longest wars, and his countrymen told him they need him to lead the nation as president, it would be hard for him to turn a deaf ear to the call.
In a punishing schedule, Petraeus likes to explain his strategy against insurgency at campuses around the country, particularly those with large ROTC units. A few weeks ago, he hit Yale, Saint Anselm College in New Hampshire, and Brigham Young University in Utah, in little more than 24 hours. (“It’s easier when you’ve got your own airplane,” says an aide.) The choice of Saint Anselm intrigued some political observers because it is sometimes chosen as a debate venue in presidential campaigns.
Petraeus dismisses any talk of political guile, pointing out that though he is a registered Republican, he has avoided voting in recent elections to negate any question of partisanship.
What he is enthusiastic about is the successful counterinsurgency tactic he employed in Iraq and which he now is implementing in Afghanistan. In a few of his words, it is: “You cannot kill or capture your way out of an industrial-strength insurgency.” It requires a combined military and civilian effort. The ground must be prepared with economic and educational and medical programs capturing the support of the civilian population. They must be confident that the military can protect them once the insurgents are driven out. Once the ground is prepared, Petraeus says, “Then we take the fight to the enemy. There is no gain in taking the fight to the enemy if the population there has no faith in a secure future.”
Part of the Petraeus strategy is the emphasis on avoiding civilian casualties. His soldiers are ordered not to shoot if the number of civilian casualties is likely to be substantial. Never engage, he orders, if the number of enemies made by the action outnumbers the “bad guys” you take out.
At 57, Petraeus is young enough to embark on a political career when many of his college-age listeners are at their prime voting age. The ROTC cadets of today, as Petraeus says, could be commanding troops in action in foreign countries.
If the Petraeus strategy has brought “victory” in America’s two longest wars, the call to make a presidential run may be hard to resist.
John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, writes a biweekly column. He is a professor of international communications at Brigham Young University.