We now learn that General David Petraeus fancies himself a Dwight Eisenhower for the 21st century.
According to a report in London’s Independent newspaper by the reliable Middle East observer Patrick Cockburn, the U.S. military viceroy in Iraq would like very much to return from his mission and — like the Supreme Commander of Allied forces in Europe during World War II and of North Atlantic Treaty Organization in its aftermath — mount a bid for the White House.
Petraeus has apparently been so open in expressing his “long-term interest in running for the US presidency” that Sabah Khadim, a former senior adviser at Iraq’s Interior Ministry who worked closely with the general in Baghdad, recalls, “I asked him if he was planning to run in 2008 and he said, ‘No, that would be too soon’.”
Such are the political calculations of the man whose embrace of President Bush’s war has become so complete that he and his aides have radically altered the manner in which statistics are gathered on violence in Iraq in order to foster the fantasy that the fight has taken a turn for the better.
“General Petraeus has a reputation in the US Army for being a man of great ambition. If he succeeds in reversing America’s apparent failure in Iraq, he would be a natural candidate for the White House in the presidential election in 2012,” explains Cockburn. “His able defense of the ‘surge’ in US troop numbers in Iraq as a success before Congress this week has made him the best-known soldier in America. An articulate, intelligent and energetic man, he has always shown skill in managing the media.”
The problem, of course, is that Petraeus’s “open interest in the presidency” might, Cockburn suggests, “lead critics to suggest that his own political ambitions have influenced him in putting an optimistic gloss on the US military position in Iraq “
It is Petraeus’s willingness to apply the optimistic gloss that marks him as a worthy successor to George Bush, who in Thursday night speech to the nation pronounced himself well and truly pleased with his general’s recitation of the administration’s talking points. Based on general’s testimony, Bush is claiming “success in meeting (our) objectives.”
The president’s “return on success” is an empty promise that a small number of troops already scheduled for withdrawal from Iraq may, in fact, be withdrawn. At the same time, however, Bush acknowledges that this “success will require U.S. political, economic, and security engagement that extends beyond my Presidency.”
Translation: For all the window-dressing talk about drawing down troop levels, Bush continues to peddle the ” stay-the-course” message that has been his theme since the occupation of oil-rich Iraq went awry more than four years ago. And, once more, the president is asking Congress to provide him with more money for more war.
All that has changed is that the president now has a medal-bejeweled general who is willing to gloss over the failure the naked emperor so desperately seeks to define as “success.”
Bush and Petraeus have joined their ambitions — one for a presidency that is not summed up by the word “failed,” one for a presidency of his own.
Ambition is, unfortunately, the wet nurse of delusion — a delusion so severe that Bush has seldom hesitated to compare his meandering “war on terror” with the fight against fascism.
For their own reasons, the president and Petraeus feel they can afford to maintain the war until they figure out how to rearrange the letters of the word “quagmire” to spell “victory.”
That will not happen. Bush’s will be a failed presidency. And Petraeus’s will be not be a presidency at all.
Unfortunately, on the way to their shared fate, the commander-in-chief and his general will preside over thousands of additional American deaths, tens of thousands of additional Iraqi deaths, the continued collapse of this country’s global reputation and the emptying from our treasury of the resources that might have made America and the world more secure, more functional and more humane.
Petraeus may fancy himself a latter-day Eisenhower. But he has shown none of the wisdom of the man who, recognizing the folly of turning the Cold War into a hot fight, campaigned for the presidency in 1952 on a promise to end the bloodshed on the Korean Peninsula — and, when elected, did so quickly and honorably.
To those who suggested in 1953 that it was necessary to wage an endless ground and air war against Chinese communists who were portrayed as being every bit as diabolical as the targets of the “war on terror,” Eisenhower responded, “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. […] This is not a way of life at all in any true sense. Under the clouds of war, it is humanity hanging on a cross of iron.”
Six years later, as he was finishing a presidency that had, for the most part, maintained the peace, Eisenhower counseled against paying too much heed to the pleading of generals and politicians for new fights.
“I like to believe that people in the long run are going to do more to promote peace than our governments,” Ike told British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan. “Indeed, I think that people want peace so much that one of these days governments had better get out of the way and let them have it.”
And where do the people stand after weeks of propagandizing by the president and his Petraeus with regard to the war to which they have attached their ambitions?
A new poll of Iraqis, conducted by ABC News, Britain’s BBC, and Japan’s public broadcaster NHK, finds that 70 percent of those surveyed say they believe security has worsened in regions where the Bush/Petraeus surge has been focused. Another 11 percent of the people in whose name Bush claims the occupation must continue say the buildup has had no effect.
A new poll of Americans, conducted by the Gallup organization just prior to Petraeus’s testimony, 58 percent rated the surge a failure. Perhaps more significantly, at least for the general’s ambitions, 59 percent predicted that history would judge the whole of Bush’s preemptive war with Iraq to have been a failure.
That is a seven percent increase from a year ago, when voters were preparing to reject the war and the war president’s party at the polls. And while the testimony of a general and the preaching of a president may move some poll numbers temporarily, their empty words cannot change the reality that Eisenhower was right about such endeavors. “All of us have heard this term ‘preventative war’ since the earliest days of Hitler. I recall that is about the first time I heard it,” the 34th president told a press conference in 1953. “In this day and time… I don’t believe there is such a thing; and, frankly, I wouldn’t even listen to anyone seriously that came in and talked about such a thing.”
Those are the words of a general who had the wisdom required to assume the presidency, and of a president who had the wisdom to serve as commander-in-chief. It is a deficit of such wisdom that disqualifies both David Petraeus and George Bush, and that ill serves both Iraq and America.
John Nichols’ new book is