Most historians of US foreign policy approach scholarship on 21st-century events with caution: If the diplomatic cables won’t be released for another three decades, why bother telling an incomplete story of the United States’ role in the world?
But at this year’s conference of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations (SHAFR)—the leading organization in the field of diplomatic history—historians grappled with the controversial legacy of retired general David Petraeus, former CIA director and architect of the troop “surges” in Washington’s post-9/11 wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
After SHAFR announced that Petraeus would give the keynote address at this year’s meeting, held June 21–23 in Philadelphia, several SHAFR members, led by New York University clinical associate professor Hannah Gurman, wrote an open letter contesting his invitation. Although a few junior professors were among the many organizers of the letter (a considerable risk for those hoping to get tenure) several notable senior historians, including Andrew Bacevich, Greg Grandin, Alfred McCoy, Lloyd Gardner, Carol Anderson, and Christian Appy, signed on.
The letter, signed by 277 scholars in total, contested the invitation on the grounds of the former general’s particular legacy: “Petraeus played a major role in shaping the failed counterinsurgency wars of the post 9/11 era that left a legacy of destruction and devastation in Iraq and Afghanistan and destabilized the entire Middle East, the consequences of which we are still living with today.”
Over the past decade, a familiar narrative about Petraeus’s role in the Iraq War has solidified among elements of the foreign-policy establishment and several of its stenographers in corporate media: As the situation on the ground was rapidly deteriorating in 2006 amid high US casualties and a brutal sectarian conflict unleashed by the US overthrow of Saddam Hussein and subsequent dismantling of the Iraqi state, David Petraeus emerged. Armed with a Princeton PhD in international relations, the new general rescued the US military from losing the war and Iraqi civilians from widespread violence by implementing a “surge” of troops who embarked on a comprehensive program of counterinsurgency, or COIN, based on FM 3-24, the COIN field manual he developed months before his foray into Iraq. Riding his wave of fame in Washington, Petraeus soon persuaded Barack Obama to initiate a surge of his own in Afghanistan, where deadly night raids commenced and, according to journalist Steve Coll, as commander of US forces Petraeus frequently misspoke by saying “Iraq” when he meant “Afghanistan”—a result of his propensity to hype up his alleged success in the former.
But as COIN critics such as Douglas Porch, Gian Gentile, and Andrew Bacevich have argued, the decline in violence in Iraq was less a result of Petraeus’s program than of shifting sectarian alliances and increasing Sunni-Shia segregation that began well before the surge. “Petraeus and his acolytes merely boarded a train that had already left the station at least six months earlier,” wrote Porch. Other critics, like Charlotte Blatt, have argued that the surge had little long-term strategic success, as violence and sectarianism soon returned to pre-surge levels. This nuanced reality did not stop Petraeus from “creating the myth of his success” as a savior general, as the journalist Gareth Porter has documented.
It was particularly this propagandist element of Petraeus—justifying the destructive wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and portraying the US military as a benevolent force in the world—that led Gurman, editor of Hearts and Minds: A People’s History of Counterinsurgency, and many of her colleagues to contest SHAFR’s decision to invite the former general to give the conference keynote. “His legacy contributes to a broader pattern of whitewashing the history of U.S. imperial violence,” they wrote in their letter.
Petraeus’s fall from grace came in the wake of an extramarital affair he had with his authorized biographer, Paula Broadwell, which forced his resignation from directorship of the CIA in 2012. Along with Petraeus’s semester at the City University of New York in 2013, where protests forced the school to reduce his pay from $200,000 to $1 for teaching a seminar, it’s hard to view the SHAFR keynote outside the context of a concerted effort to restore his legitimacy.
SHAFR, which celebrated its 50th anniversary last year, and the field of diplomatic history in general have traditionally been fairly conservative spaces, especially during the Cold War, with scholars like John Lewis Gaddis leading the “triumphalist” narrative of a righteous America’s moral and ideological victory over Soviet communism. But during the past two decades, SHAFR has become more diverse in terms of ideology and academic focus. At the organization’s 2016 conference, for example, Robin D.G. Kelley, a Marxist historian of race and class and author of a widely read book on black communists during the Great Depression, gave the keynote address. Political space has opened within SHAFR such that there is pushback against speakers like Petraeus, “torture memo” author John Yoo, former CIA and NSA director Michael Hayden, and Iraq War architect Paul Wolfowitz.
Petraeus’s presence at SHAFR in the capacity as keynote speaker—as opposed to, for example, a panel participant—was what specifically irked organizers of the protest letter. “A keynote is an honorific, not generally an opportunity for debate,” Gurman said in an interview with The Nation. “We’re just tools for his marketing strategy,” she added. Her letter noted that there is a “difference between engaging current and former policymakers and elevating their positions with the special honor of a keynote lecture.”
Though she dislikes the keynote choice, Gurman in no way contests the SHAFR president’s power to select the speaker. “The president has every right to choose a speaker, and I have every right to protest,” she said. “My original intent had nothing to do with SHAFR. I wanted to protest Petraeus,” she added. But when she and her colleagues considered that a protest might “alienate or embarrass the [SHAFR] leadership,” they instead proposed in the letter that “the lecture be reframed as a discussion format led by a SHAFR moderator who would pose pre-submitted questions and follow-ups to the speaker,” creating a platform not for Petraeus “but rather for a discussion and debate about the Iraq and Afghanistan wars more generally.”
Soon after Gurman published the open letter, Aaron O’Connell, associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin and a former special assistant to Petraeus in Afghanistan, penned a response in defense of the general. Disputing some of the letter’s claims about Petraeus’s scholarship and his roles in Iraq and Afghanistan, O’Connell, editor of a scholarly book on counterinsurgency in Afghanistan, wrote, “the actions recommended in this letter work against SHAFR’s goal of creating a diverse and inclusive community of scholars and practitioners who seek to understand U.S. foreign relations history in its many forms.”
SHAFR’s program committee responded to Gurman’s and O’Connell’s letters by proposing a roundtable on the history of counterinsurgency and Petraeus’s contributions to it. Gurman and her colleagues objected, saying that a debate about counterinsurgency “does not address the concerns in the letter,” and declined to participate, so SHAFR canceled the proposed event.
Gurman’s letter invoked the legacy of Lloyd Gardner, professor emeritus at Rutgers University, one of the most prominent revisionist historians in the “Wisconsin School” of American diplomatic history, and a SHAFR member since the organization’s inception. Though Gardner signed the letter and said in an e-mail that he “did not like Petraeus’s appearance as keynoter,” he acknowledged that “it does no good to exclude [policymakers] from the academy’s proceedings. But in this case, as in others, there was no real chance for a dialogue.”
The keynote’s format, which remained unchanged despite the suggestions in Gurman’s letter, reinforced the perception that Petraeus did not come to SHAFR to have a rigorous debate with historians. A week before the conference, SHAFR announced that audience questions for Petraeus would have to be submitted in writing on a notecard in advance, allowing the moderator to prescreen questions. That moderator was John Nagl, a public champion of Petraeus, author of the quintessential “COINdinista” text Learning to Eat Soup With a Knife, and former president of the liberal interventionist think tank Center for a New American Security.
This format “enables the speaker to dominate and control the event,” said John Prados, a senior fellow at George Washington University’s National Security Archive and an active SHAFR participant for the past four decades.
In an interview with The Nation, SHAFR President Peter Hahn, the person responsible for selecting the keynote speaker, explained that written questions screened by John Nagl “would be a method that General Petraeus would be happy with, that would make the invitation seem all the more inviting.” This format “would avoid some of the pitfalls of an open mic, where a member might go off on a tangent that would take a lot of time addressing an issue that’s maybe not the one that other people in the room would like to hear about,” he said.
“Substance aside, such reasoning insults the entire professoriate, since all academics do is go off on tangents on open mics that no one else in the room wants to hear,” Stephen Wertheim, lecturer at Birkbeck, University of London, quipped.
As SHAFR is a fee-based membership organization, many members who spoke to The Nation were concerned about how much Petraeus was being paid for his keynote. Some reports indicate that Petraeus makes more than $130,000 per speech.
Although Hahn declined to reveal what he called a “confidential business matter,” he did say that SHAFR paid Petraeus “a tiny fraction of what has been widely reported as the standard fee.” Hahn noted that the conference’s external sponsors, like the Foreign Policy Research Institute, on whose advisory board John Nagl sits, contributed to Petraeus’s fee.
The Nation requested press entry to Petraeus’s keynote address, but Amy Sayward, executive director of SHAFR, explained that only those who purchased a keynote ticket within the allotted timeframe could attend. She said that Petraeus’s staff requested a list of attendees two weeks in advance.
According to Ohio State University distinguished professor Robert McMahon, who attended the keynote, Petraeus acknowledged that many SHAFR members were protesting him: “He made the comment that he has fought to maintain American freedoms, and one of those freedoms is the First Amendment, and if people use the First Amendment to criticize him, he’s okay with that.” McMahon added that the former general “gave a really thoughtful reappraisal of his military career, the invasion of Iraq, and counterinsurgency in Afghanistan” and “never really said anything negative about Trump’s foreign policy.”
A week after the conference, Hahn e-mailed SHAFR members to say, “By my observation and experience, luncheons have been used for many years to invite an experienced…practitioner of US foreign relations to speak…. I have learned considerably from such speakers about the complications of policy-making that often are hard to discern in the archives, enabling me to write and analyze from a more informed, empathetic perspective.”
But for the historians who contested Petraeus’s invitation, the former general epitomizes a particularly egregious stain in the country’s recent past. Not only was he a leading operational architect of one phase of a war increasingly considered a grave mistake in US foreign policy, but he was also instrumental in designing its cover story, dubbed by the late Michael Hastings as “the most impressive con job in recent American history…convinc[ing] the entire Washington establishment that we won the war.”
If the Petraeus keynote represents a vestige of the traditional character of diplomatic history, the protest against it—based on “the democratic principle that historians should be cognizant of the excesses of state power, particularly with respect to military intervention and war,” as Gurman’s letter asserts—signals its diversification.