When he ascended to command in Iraq, with a name torn from ancient Rome and a plan pulled from the spirit of Frederick the Great (misattributed, "L'audace, l'audace, toujours l'audace!"), he brought order to chaos. Not just on the battlefield, but in living rooms, around water coolers, and on military bases the world over. David Petraeus, with his Ph.D from Princeton and a Ranger tab on his shoulder, assuaged fears that the combat zone was a partisan playground and the United States still shackled to Vietnam. Here was a man who'd taken a bullet, been awarded Valor medals, and doesn't vote so as not to get dragged into the undertow of Washington politics.
Today, it helps that Petraeus did the impossible. It helps that his plan worked. It helps that only yesterday, no less than Vice President Joe "Let's partition Iraq and get out of there" Biden now considered Iraq to be a great achievement of the Obama administration. But there's the rub. When George W. Bush backed General Petraeus and his counterinsurgency strategy, the president had by then lost much credibility as commander in chief. To the public at large, Iraq was a "civil war" or a "war for oil" or "unfinished family business" or a "distraction from Afghanistan" or all of these things. General Petraeus, therefore, was presented as more than four stars and a set of Airborne wings. He became the new face of the war, superseding even the president.
Eighteen months after taking office, President Obama can hardly claim moral authority on military affairs, first tacking left as the anti-war candidate, now following through with the Bush-Petraeus plan to the letter. After pinning a fourth star on Bush general and black-ops mastermind Stanley McChrystal, the president wasted precious months deciding whether to commit troops requested by the general, and then declared a politically calculated withdrawal date of July 2011. Polls show overwhelming disapproval of President Obama's handling of the war, and sacking General McChrystal one year into his command does little to mollify the uneasy public.
The choice of sending General Petraeus once more into the breach is worthy of praise, but fraught with questions. Leaving CENTCOM to take charge of the ground war in Afghanistan is a demotion to General Petraeus. The circumstances surrounding the move are still clouded -- was he ordered there, or did he request it? Did he accept the job out of loyalty to his friend Stanley McChrystal, or simply out of a sense of duty?
To be clear, Petraeus has a lot to lose. Presently, he is sainted, destined for a glorious profile in military lore, with a biography and set of accomplishments that rival any American general since George Washington. Taking charge of a desperate war in a Mad Max wasteland is the mark of supreme confidence, supreme foolishness, or supreme misfortune.
But betting against David Petraeus is not a smart move. In 2007, retired General Barry McCaffrey called Petraeus "the best person to play a losing hand."
He is, quite literally, the only man for the job. He is the last man standing with the public who can credibly be called upon to not only win the war, but to do the impossible. He has, after all, done it before.
It's difficult to find a war in American history where so much depended on any one man. He is the face of this war, the spiritual commander in chief amongst presidencies deficient in military authority. He is the only man, general or civilian, who can stand before the American people, the American soldier, and military families, and discuss the conflict without being second-guessed or dismissed out of hand as a partisan hack. Long gone are the days of "General Betray Us." Indeed, even MoveOn.org has scrubbed its website of the controversial advertisement. Petraeus is the Army. He is the war. The fate of the region is in his hands.
For that reason, and because President Obama has recommitted this nation to war in Afghanistan and the continued campaign in Iraq, General Petraeus should be promoted to General of the Army, and given a fifth star.
He would be the first man to hold that rank since the revered Omar Bradley in 1950. It would require authorization by the president and confirmation by the Senate. In practice it wouldn't change the job of General Petraeus. But it would not only show that President Obama believes in Petraeus -- that he's not simply throwing America's best general into the arena for political expediency -- but would also reassure soldiers and civilians alike that this White House expects this man to win. This man's plan to work.
War is hell. It's hard for soldiers in the field, and it's harder for families left behind. Soldiers humping 90-pound rucksacks in the most unforgiving terrain the world over, and asked to build a civilization in a place where it never existed, need to know that the president of the United States isn't waging a war he "inherited." That this isn't a burden he'd rather do without. That it isn't a distraction from domestic policy. They need a commitment.
General Petraeus embodies that commitment. And as General of the Army, he will be given an unambiguous mandate with the unfettered support of the president and the nation.