What Congress, commissions and candidates have been unable to do might be done by one American, David Howell Petraeus. He could end the war in Iraq by declaring it unwinnable, and it is possible that he might do just that.
Parsing Petraeus is complicated, but he is clearly not one of Bush’s yes-sir generals. The desperation behind the Surge can be measured by the unusual choice of competence over compliance, of a commander respected for not only his military skills but political understanding.
The irony of that decision is that Petraeus will almost certainly not achieve “victory” but prove that no one can. Listen to the assessment of him by Thomas Ricks of the Washington Post, author of “Fiasco,” a scathing critique of the war:
“Just about the best general in the Army...Both a combat leader and the holder of a PhD from Princeton in which he studied the Vietnam war and its effects on the US military...he had a very successful first tour in Iraq in 2003-2004...
“Petraeus realized very quickly that US military training doctrine didn't really do the job. So he...reached back to his knowledge of Vietnam and counter-insurgency theory and operated very differently...
Mosul was...a real tinderbox. And Petraeus kept the place quiet. He kind of had his own foreign policy even -- he had relations with the government of Syria because he wanted to get energy flowing into Mosul, wanted to get fiber optics up to get communications going. Did a very good job...
“The first time his division had an instance of abuse--a detainee being beaten while in detention--he basically shut down the division. He not only said "What are you guys doing wrong?" but he looked in the mirror and said "What am I doing wrong?"...They got MP's who were used to handling prisoners...
“He invited Iraqi officials--clerics, professors--to come into his detention facility once a week and meet with the prisoners, speak to them in Arabic which the guards couldn't understand, ask how they were treated and also to put down rumors in the general population about what was happening to the detainees. A really smart bunch of moves.”
In the year after the 2003 invasion, Petraeus was asking, “Tell me where this ends.” Now there are signs that, while he tries to pacify Baghdad, he is still looking for the answer.
In his first press conference after assuming command, he said, “There is no military solution to a problem like that in Iraq...There needs to be a political aspect.”
He has told visiting members of Congress, “I will know by midsummer whether this surge has worked.”
In a long interview with Jim Lehrer for PBS ten days ago, unlike John McCain on his stunt visit to Baghdad, Petraeus sounded like a man trying to do a job not making a pitch for one--like a leader, not a cheerleader.
While stressing the positive, Petraeus has made it clear that, if he finally deems the situation hopeless, he will say so. And if the man on whom Bush has pinned his last hopes and the Senate confirmed without a dissenting vote does that, it will be over.
Not to go all starry-eyed but Petraeus recalls another general, Eisenhower, political to the bone but somehow beyond politics. He may do his country as great a service as Ike did, not by winning a war but getting us out of one by proving it can’t be won.