General Petraeus' Mistake

Now don't go getting your bloomers in a knot, but I think the most egregious culprit in the flap over Rev. Terry Jones and his Dove World Outreach Qur'an-burning project was actually none other than David Petraeus. That's hardly to suggest that the pastor himself didn't play a part (or the media a much bigger part), but rather that, most surely, the general's public comment was terribly -- and unsettlingly -- ill-advised, and I'll tell you why. But first, I should tell you of the extreme irony for me personally in that observation. 

In point of fact, I firmly -- loudly, proudly, repeatedly, and resolutely -- supported (and for a full eighteen months prior, clamored tirelessly for) the Iraq surge against its political opponents in Congress and the media (both alternative and lamestream), whom I regarded -- and whom I continue to regard -- as a gaggle of sleazoid creeps, who tried to prevent (and failing that, tried to sabotage) the effort -- and clearly for no reason other than that they didn't want us to win there. 

I shall never forget those who placed that full-page ad in The New York Times three years ago -- September 11, 2007, sixth anniversary of 9/11 -- addressing Petraeus as "General Betray-Us."

I shall never forget the snooty imputations of the then-Senator Clinton, who in effect called the general a damned liar to his face during his congressional testimony regarding his Iraq progress report.

Mind you, nobody is above criticism or scrutiny. It's not as if generals can't possibly dissemble or prevaricate -- but the senator wasn't really concerned about David Petraeus', or anybody else's, veracity (least of all her own) at the time. This was a cheap photo-op, pure and simple. It was campaign season, and Sen. Clinton was hoping to "one-up" her rival for the Demo nomination, then-Senator Obama, by playing to the MoveOn-moron, Code-Twinkie-&-cohort party base. So she did a little grandstanding with Petraeus as fall guy, tossed a few choice chunks of red meat into the galleries -- at the general's expense.

That stupid smear line about how his appraisal of the situation at the time required "a willing suspension of disbelief" will never pass from my memory.

And yet he carried off the surge magnificently.

That having been said, I note that now, whenever Petraeus speaks up publicly, if his remarks at the time happen to dovetail with their defeatist agenda and can easily be exploited for such ends, the same crowd who formerly could never find a good word to say about him virtually falls all over itself in its ardor to cynically appropriate his authority, with "the General, this," and "the General, that." Gag me; something stinks here.

I can't help suspecting that Petraeus' latest role in speaking out may indicate either somebody who has fallen victim to the Peter Principle -- you know, the phenomenon wherein somebody's successes fuel his rise, right up to the point where his competence cannot keep pace with his prominence -- or one who has succumbed to the beckonings and blandishments of power. I hope I'm mistaken (on both counts), but that's how it's been looking these days from my little corner on all-too-human nature.

Because if Gen. Petraeus' going public over the Qur'an-torching hullabaloo was supposed to put a damper on the publicity that the dingaling Gainesville reverend was surely seeking, it sure as blazes was counterproductive. Kind of like dousing a 4th of July barbecue at the end of a glorious day by spraying it with a couple gallons of light sweet crude.

I firmly believe that Petraeus' public comment  was compulsively and unspeakably imprudent.

Look, the substance of his message -- about how the Bonfire-of-the-Books could possibly put his troops in danger, or further complicate their mission -- may indeed (or may not) have been accurate. But accurate or not, the manner and venue of transmission were absolutely boneheaded -- no "maybes" about that, in my (anything-but-humble) view. 

Look, if Gen. Petraeus was in earnest, and I see no reason to suspect otherwise, he could have taken his case (or at least begun by taking his case) directly -- and privately -- to Pastor Jones. This could have been undertaken as a quiet, urgent appeal on behalf of the troops, and even as a personal emissary of the president. At least at first. And that, of itself, might well have been sufficient to secure the solicited cooperation.

The net effect of his going public with it early in the game was tantamount to giving an engraved invitation to the enemy to "up the ante." (And eventually they will, rest assured, now that everybody and their Aunt Mathilda has piled on and made the thing exponentially bigger than it had to be.) Effectively he told the bad guys

  • that we are generally afraid of Muslims;
  • that, more specifically, our men-at-arms and their commanders can be intimidated; and
  • that We the People of this land are willing to let our own civil liberties (and by extension, our sovereignty) be held hostage to increasingly delicate Islamic sensibilities. 

He unmistakably telegraphed that anxiety. And now, whatever happens (or fails to happen), in northern Florida or anywhere else, from this point onward -- even if September 11 has come and gone -- you can take it as a "given" that the enemy's got our number. (This, as if jihadi slime needed an excuse for the evil they do.)

The general has made a major mistake, I'm sorry to say -- a five-star blunder: He went off half-cocked, and nothing good will come of it. In the field, David Petraeus is a brilliant tactician. Back home (in the real world, if you will), he's something of a doltish strategist, I fear -- or is working for one, which may be more to the point. And in my roundabout, pokey-pup way, I'm getting to the point.

Since when is it suddenly okay for an active-duty general to be speaking out publicly? I thought we had this all squared away when Petraeus replaced McChrystal in Afghanistan. That was why the latter was replaced: because active-duty military commanders are supposed to stay the hell out of politics, and instead save their remarks more directly and narrowly for POTUS, DOD, and the JCS (and deliver them strictly on the QT, know what I mean?). 

Or is speaking out publicly to be henceforth forbidden only if the general disagrees with the president's policy, as MacArthur did? -- or is critical of it, as McChrystal was?

Frankly, I don't like the pattern that Petraeus has been establishing lately of speaking out at all while he's still in active service. In fact, what he said in this instance sounds curiously similar to the remarks hazily attributed to him some six months ago about how the "unresolved Arab-Israeli conflict" supposedly endangers American lives, etc. Remember that little go-round -- and how various elements tried to twist it, turn it, and exploit it?

Is this, then, to be the present administration's way of silencing (or dampening the ardor of) its foreign policy opposition? -- by having "The General" let it be known that whatever it is, in the way of an alternative perspective, that the president doesn't like is "endangering the troops" -- and that therefore, that perspective's proponents should forget the intrinsic merits of their position and back off? Because "the General said so"?

At this point, it's looking rather like the president and the general are using each other politically. If indeed the general harbors post-military political aspirations, then it's going to be hard not to smell a Faustian bargain in the works. David Petraeus is a good man -- yet better men have fallen farther. Keep paying attention. 

Michael Zebulon was once the youngest Eagle Scout on the eastern seaboard. Actor, narrator, writer -- he remains an Eagle Scout (there are no "former" ones) but is no longer the youngest. Contact him at:
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