I had a note from an old friend the other night. He's got a new job and has to move on for a while. We've known each other for years and, due to job requirements, only recently have we been able to get together on a regular basis - usually an informal lunch at his office -- to discuss military affairs, politics, personalities, literature and the challenges history poses for civilization. It sounds heavier than it really is as the conversations are generally casual and inquisitive.
But my friend has found himself thrust forward again. His name is Lieutenant General Dave Petraeus and he's just been nominated for his fourth star and asked to take over operations in Iraq. It will be his third tour there - each time with greater responsibility and with a wider impact. It's not an easy job. Some might even term it thankless. But, if anyone is ready for it Dave is that man.
When last we met over pastrami sandwiches and coffee the subject turned inevitably to the situation in Iraq where we remain heavily engaged in an effort to resurrect that nation from its legacy of corruption and internecine strife. While Dave had been heavily engaged in shepherding the restructuring of US policy for counterinsurgency the nation of Iraq had been lurching forward in fits and starts - eager for a better future and yet mired, seemingly hopelessly, in the tendrils of a convoluted and an unforgiving history.
Now Dave has once again been offered an opportunity to help Iraq meet the challenge of its own existence and future. I strongly believe that he is very much the right man for the job.
As I have already noted, Petraeus is not a stranger to the region or its populations. He has operated successfully in that area for years on end. The question which naturally arises out of his most recent appointment is how it may impact on Iraq and its contending populations and political entities. The simple answer (as if anything is really ever simple in that region) is that Petraeus is no one's fool. Of all senior military officers on active duty today he likely has the best, most down to earth appreciation of the factions at work and what is at stake.
Exceptionally well-educated and well-read Dave is also a hands-on personality. What we always referred to as a "muddy boots" soldier. He is not afraid to plunge into an affray to get to its root causes and to propose and impose solutions which although not always pleasing to all factions are at least acceptable and workable.
Like the venerable Theodore Roosevelt he is very apt to speak softly and carry a big stick. He knows full well what is at stake in Iraq - not only for that country's population but for the region and the world - and is thus not one to abet petty internecine squabbles. All parties will be expected to be flexible, innovative, and even forgiving of perceived past wrongs. The emphasis of all negotiations will necessarily be on the future. The petty squabbling, the latent dishonesty, the regional tolerance for intolerance and for violent, short term solutions will likely get short shrift from Petraeus' leadership. Any burgeoning problem, a contemporary Gordian Knot, which threatens the region or its peoples may well be resolved in the same way that Alexander dealt with the original - with no-nonsense directness backed by force.
For all of their good intentions and hard work, previous military administrations in Baghdad have become mired in the volatility and contentiousness of the environment. There have been so many political and military brushfires with which to deal that accomplishment of the greater objective - a peaceful and productive region - has proved elusive. Thus, just as a change in the civilian leadership at the Department of Defense was due, so too a change in the military leadership in Iraq may be expected to achieve goals which were simply unattainable beforehand.
Some have ventured to criticize the Bush Administration for, in essence, changing horses in mid-stream but that, I will contend, is the mark of an administration which is doing its job correctly; which is adjusting to an evolving situation on the ground. During the American Civil War President Abraham Lincoln appointed a succession of unsuccessful generals to prosecute the war. It was only when he finally settled on Ulysses S. Grant that he realized that he had found the right man for the job. When critics insisted after the bloody encounter at Shiloh that Grant be fired - apparently a natural risk for combat commanders - Lincoln replied laconically "I cannot spare this man. He fights." Petraeus fights and thinks. A good combination for the challenges ahead.
Frederick J. Chiaventone - award-winning novelist, screenwriter, and retired Army officer taught International Security Affairs and counter-insurgency operations at the US Army's Command and General Staff College.