Gen. David Petraeus, PhD (Princeton, international relations), visited Georgetown University Law Center on January 22. Security officials–uniformed or identifiable by earpieces–were exceedingly visible, and the students and professors who crowded into the auditorium to hear him were screened by our own university police. Secret Service contingents around the president and vice president are familiar to Washington residents. On this occasion some noticed that the civilian agents guarding the general were exceptionally well tailored. (Perhaps the Defense Department subcontracts some of its security operations, as it does with warfare itself?) What it does not do is apply economic rigor to the use of officers in the prime of their careers. The officer who adjusted the microphone for the general was a major, a colonel verified the PowerPoint arrangements, and yet another (I could not discern her rank) made sure that the chair reserved for the general was up to Central Command’s operating code. If I were a senior Iranian military planner, I would wonder who, precisely, would be available for important operations against my forces.

The general, accompanied by our dean, entered to polite applause. Why not? He is, after all, a public servant, and public service is not much honored. We were applauding the idea as much as its representation. Moreover, as he had made himself available for the announced question-and-answer session, perhaps authentic dialogue would be possible. Our institution is nothing if not ecumenical. Our own Nation colleague David Cole is one of our stars; another is Viet-Dinh, who as an assistant attorney general under Attorney General John Ashcroft wrote the Patriot Act.

The general began with a long chain of academic reminiscences. In these and in his answers to the somewhat anodyne questions he was posed at first, he apparently had one academic-military model in mind–as one he would not follow. Eisenhower as president of Columbia, and later in the Oval Office, demanded that all communications addressed to him be no longer than a page (or perhaps two, certainly no more). General Petraeus must have read Engels as well as Marx (to whom he referred) at Princeton, and in particular the dictum of Engels on how quantity becomes quality. His answers resembled a large and well-protected military convoy winding across a distant landscape and stirring up no small amount of dust.

The general gave us cultural, economic, military, political, social and technological perspectives on the work of the US forces in Afghanistan, the Gulf States, Iraq, Pakistan and Yemen. He used enough acronyms to bewilder even a resident expert at a Washington research center–or a journalist at the Washington Post anxious to demonstrate that he or she is “with it.” The one thing he did not do, no matter what he was asked, was to consider whether the means deployed by his command are adequate to the ends he seeks. Even more striking was his obdurate if implicit refusal to consider those ends critically–or at all–except to assume that these were, or ought to be, items of unquestioned belief.

I had a chance to ask a question, which I began by declaring that I knew one of his teachers at Princeton, our editorial board member Richard Falk. That induced the general to recall a term paper he had written for Professor Falk, on the legality, under international law, of the 1983 invasion of Granada. At the time, the general recalled correctly, President Reagan, as our troops were disembarking, produced a request to intervene by a small group of Caribbean states joined in an association few had heard of. The general hinted that perhaps the US had arranged for the invitation—and recalled that his paper had concluded that the procedure was “irregular” and perhaps even unprecedented, but necessary. I remarked that there was indeed precedent: the request to the USSR to invade Czechoslovakia in 1968 (to rescue a fellow socialist state from danger in the form of “socialism with a human face”), from the rest of the Warsaw Pact. The general, nothing if not a good sport, smiled and said that he would remember that.

I then asked him to reflect, historically, on the changes in the role of the military in our society since 1945. He would surely agree that with all the resources at its disposal, it had a very central and even enduring place in our national life. Could it be said that it really made little or no difference to himself and his colleagues who served as president under themselves? The general denied this with considerable emphasis, spoke at length of the commitment he and his fellow officers had to civil supremacy–and for good measure spoke at even greater length to disavow (what no one had suggested) any ambition on his part to run for the presidency.

It would be unfair to convey the impression of someone totally immune to criticism. I mentioned my sharing membership of our editorial board with Professor Falk, and the general, responding with a somewhat forced smile, said that yes, he had read about himself in The Nation. I suspect that this is rather more than the recent President Bush did. Score one for Princeton over Yale.