Is Petraeus the right choice for winning in Iraq?

Ralph Peters:

IT'S official: Dave Petraeus, one of the U.S. Army's most- impressive leaders, is headed back to Baghdad to take charge. The assignment means a fourth star and the chance to save a desperate situation - or preside over a grim strategic failure.

With back-to-back tours of duty in Iraq behind him and the most-positive image among Iraqis of any U.S. leader, military or civilian, Petraeus is a natural choice. His intelligence, drive, devotion to service and negotiating skill make the lean, young-looking general seem perfect.

The question is whether Gen. Petraeus is the right choice - or if he'll merely be the final executor of a failed policy.

The general has a winning public demeanor - when he led the 101st Airborne Division in northern Iraq in 2003, he proved such a superb diplomat that the Kurds called him "Malik Daoud" - King David - as a mark of respect. He listened patiently, spent money wisely, used force intelligently and truly did win hearts and minds.

He went on to tackle the reconstruction of Iraq's security forces - no easy task, given the ruinous legacy of L. Paul Bremer's term as viceroy. Where others had faltered, Petraeus appeared to succeed.


Having known him - a bit - for years, I have unreserved respect for his talent and dedication, his quality of mind and selfless service. He's the greatest peacekeeping general in the world. But I just don't know if he can win a war.

Regaining control of Baghdad - after we threw it away - will require the defiant use of force. Negotiations won't do it. Cultural awareness isn't going to turn this situation around (we need to stop pandering to our enemies and defeat them, thanks). We insist it's all about politics and try to placate everybody, while terrorists, insurgents and militias slaughter the innocent in the name of their god and their tribe.

Meanwhile, we've been pretending we're not at war.

Our enemies aren't pretending. They're not only waging war with everything they've got, but reveling in breathtaking savagery. They're no longer impressed when an American patrol zips by. They know they own the streets, not us. To them, we're just military tourists anxious to go home.

In my contacts with Petraeus, we've sometimes agreed and sometimes argued. But we diverged profoundly on one point: The counterinsurgency doctrine produced under his direction remains far too mired in failed 20th-century models. Winning hearts and minds sounds great, but it's useless when those hearts and minds turn up dead the next morning.


Iraq will either be the ultimate test of the be nice to them brand of counter insurgency doctrine or another laboratory for defeat. The political time line does not favor success at this time. There are too many Democrats invested in defeat. He not only has to win in Iraq, he has to persuade Congress that he can win. That is a tall order for any general or admiral. However, the situation in Iraq is not nearly as dire as the one taken over by Mathew Ridgway in Korea after the Chinese entered the war. With the right leadership we can still win this war.


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