On Petraeus and Crocker from afar

Central Asia is a difficult place from which to follow the Petraeus / Crocker presentations. As a real-time thinking-out-loud exercise, here are the expectations I bring and assumptions I apply before having seen or read the testimony and questioning or followed the after-action wrapups. More “informed” reaction, or at least more reaction, once I have returned to the land of TV, newspapers, and connections fast enough to support video streaming.

1) This is a bad role for the House of Representatives to play. By “this” I mean conducting an extravaganza-style, live-TV hearing with star political witnesses.

A kind of “culture of poverty” disorder blights the performance of House committees when they are on TV. All politicians feel hungry for live TV coverage; Representatives feel starved. The President is on TV 24/7, and most Senators can get on every week or two if they really try. Most House members go months, years, or their entire careers with no shot at live national TV. Therefore they simply cannot help themselves when they have an opportunity to “question” witnesses before a national audience. They (almost) never ask real questions; they (almost) always burn their time giving little speeches. Every one of them knows that as a result their hearings are ruined as TV presentations, and – more important -- their witnesses are let off the hook. But it’s a tragedy of the commons, which no individual can prevent. I hope the first day’s session with Petraeus has proven me wrong here.

2) This is a truly terrible role for an active-duty general to play. President Bush’s decision to place David Petraeus in overall command* in Iraq gave Petraeus a large opportunity and an even larger burden. The opportunity is obvious: his fourth star, and command of a historically important theater. So is the burden; it is still hard to imagine this turning out as such a resounding success that Petraeus will look Grant- or Eisenhower-like, as opposed to dutiful and brave, in taking on the challenge.

But when Bush moved beyond looking to Petraeus for military guidance, to seeing him as the “New Jesus” who could solve the Iraq problem in toto, notably including the domestic American politics of the issue, he put a talented officer in a position with very few graceful ways out. Given that the Bush Administration built “what General Petraeus tells us in September” into the go/no-go moment for continued commitment to Iraq, Petraeus now faces these awkward realities:

* He is reporting to Congress on the success of a campaign that he is planning and supervising. You don’t need to know about the military’s can-do/zero-defects mentality, only about human nature and organizational realities, to see the problem here.

* His answers are being taken as proxies for a question no serving military officer should be asked in public: whether the effort for which he is asking his troops to fight and die is worth it. Officers leading troops must believe that what they are doing is worthwhile. If not, they cannot honorably ask those around them to sacrifice. If they are skeptical enough about the larger wisdom of the nation’s military commitment, they can resign.

After they have left active duty – more precisely, after they no longer are in active command of troops – they can make public statements about where it is and is not worth committing troops. There are many famous examples of generals who have left command expressing caution on this point: George Marshall, Dwight Eisenhower, Colin Powell before he went along with this war. But an officer currently asking his men and women to die for a cause? You ask him or her “is it worthwhile,” and there is only one answer you can possibly receive.

* His answers are placing him right in the middle of bitter partisan politics and presidential politics. In navigating the tribal tensions within Iraq, I bet Gen. Petraeus is shrewd enough not to let himself be positioned this way. Do I hear correctly that he is agreeing to an exclusive interview with Fox news? His whole approach to strategy in Iraq depends on being shrewder than that.

3) This is a terrible position for the country to be in. Let’s set aside the fundamental tragedy of today’s discussion: six years ago, immediately after the 9/11 attacks, would we have imagined that an open-ended anti-insurgent presence in a country that didn’t attack us would be the proper response? But apparently we have let the question become: are things getting better rather than worse in Iraq, with an expanded US presence? For the last year-plus, the real question remains: is there reason to believe that if we stay another year or two or three, the after effects of our withdrawal then will be enough better from today’s situation to justify the additional lives, costs, and friction of remaining committed through those years. There is more to say on this point, but before saying it I’ll wait to see some of what happened in the actual proceedings
-

* His overall command is notwithstanding the (rarely-heard-from) "czar" of the war, LTG Douglas Lute -- or the Sec Def, or the SecState, or the NSA Advisor, or the others who might theoretically have something to say here. Including the President.

Presented by

James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

Life as an Obama Impersonator

"When you think you're the president, you just act like you are above everybody else."

VIdeo

Life as an Obama Impersonator

"When you think you're the president, you just act like you are above everybody else."

Video

Things Not to Say to a Pregnant Woman

You don't have to tell her how big she is. You don't need to touch her belly.

Video

Maine's Underground Street Art

"Graffiti is the farthest thing from anarchy."

Video

The Joy of Running in a Beautiful Place

A love letter to California's Marin Headlands

Video

'I Didn't Even Know What I Was Going Through'

A 17-year-old describes his struggles with depression.

More in Technology

From This Author

Just In