Why Donald Trump Needs David Petraeus

The president-elect doesn’t understand that war is politics, because he lacks experience in both war and politics.

Former CIA director David Petraeus arrives to meet with U.S. President-elect Donald Trump on November 28, 2016.
Former CIA director David Petraeus arrives to meet with U.S. President-elect Donald Trump on November 28, 2016. (Lucas Jackson / Reuters)

“Just met with General Petraeus—was very impressed!” tweeted President-elect Donald Trump. Meanwhile, Petraeus described his conversation to reporters. “[Trump] basically walked us around the world, showed a great grasp of a variety of the challenges that are out there and some of the opportunities as well. Very good conversation, and we’ll see where it goes from here.” In a process not entirely dissimilar to that of the hit show The Apprentice, Trump is currently finalizing his Cabinet selections, including the prize role of secretary of state. The finalists appear to include Petraeus, Mitt Romney, and Senator Bob Corker. Petraeus is a controversial and flawed selection, but if chosen he could also be an essential part of Trump’s White House.

Petraeus is, to say the least, damaged goods. During the presidential campaign, Trump condemned Hillary Clinton for using a private email server, claiming the scandal was “bigger than Watergate.” But in 2015, Petraeus pled guilty to a charge of unauthorized removal and retention of classified information, after handing over data to his mistress and biographer, and was sentenced to two years probation.

The reason that Trump needs Petraeus is what we might term Trump’s “Clausewitz problem.” The 19th-century Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz argued that war is not about destroying things for its own sake, but is a “political instrument, a continuation of political intercourse, carried on with other means.” In other words, fighting is not the end of politics, but is instead a shift in tactics, or a new form of bargaining. Clausewitz’s insight continues to be central to military thought. According to the 2014 U.S. Army Operating Concept: “Army forces are prepared to do more than fight and defeat enemies; they must possess the capability to translate military objectives into enduring political outcomes.”

But when Trump talks about war, he focuses almost solely on destruction—not on the larger political goals. Trump promised to “beat the hell out of ISIS,” and the Islamic State “will be gone if I’m elected president. And they’ll be gone quickly. They will be gone very, very quickly.” Trump shows little interest in the political consequence of bombing, nation-building, or the demands of post-conflict reconstruction. “We are spending trillions of dollars in the Middle East, and the infrastructure of our country is disintegrating.”

But what happens after ISIS is defeated? What type of government will replace Islamic State’s rule in Mosul and elsewhere? With Sunnis, Kurds, and Shiites vying for power, what will stop the creation of a power vacuum that annihilates the Iraqi state?

Trump has also suggested employing forms of torture “much worse” than waterboarding, and targeting the families of suspected terrorists. He also criticized NATO as “obsolete” and suggested that Japan, South Korea, and other nations acquire nuclear weapons.

What all these positions have in common is an apolitical vision of war. Even if a tormented prisoner screams out a few extra names in a bid to end the pain, what political price will the United States pay in terms of its international image? What will be the impact on U.S. alliances if Washington deliberately kills innocent civilians simply because they are blood relations of terrorists? Will questioning NATO’s role serve to encourage Russian adventurism? How would a Japanese nuke shape regional stability?

One of Trump’s great heroes is General Douglas MacArthur—another man who failed to understand the political consequences of conflict. During the Korean War, MacArthur railed against President Harry Truman’s policy of keeping the fighting limited to the Korean Peninsula, and demanded that the U.S. bomb inside China in a bid for decisive victory. MacArthur’s public criticisms of the president led to the general being fired in 1951. In a narrow tactical sense, it might have made sense to bomb China. But this escalation would have risked a broader regional conflict, or even World War III, which the U.S. army chief of staff at the time described as “the wrong war, at the wrong place, at the wrong time, with the wrong enemy.”

The reason Trump doesn’t understand that war is politics is that he has little experience or either war or politics. By contrast, for all Petraeus’s flaws, the general understands this essential truth.

Petraeus literally wrote the book on counterinsurgency, overseeing the production of the Army and Marine Corps field manual, FM 3-24, which laid out the tenets of fighting guerrilla warfare. The core idea is that politics is at the heart of counterinsurgency. A civil war is a contest to see if the government or the guerrillas can govern most effectively. Therefore, counterinsurgents should live among the people, build local relationships and networks of intelligence, and use firepower with discretion.

In 2007, Petraeus was appointed commander in Iraq to oversee the surge strategy. In line with the principles of FM 3-24, he moved American troops out of large bases and closer to the people, and developed an alliance with Sunni tribes to fight the common foe al-Qaeda in Iraq (an effort known as the “Awakening”).

Petraeus didn’t win the Iraq War—the costs were so high by that point that no victory was possible. But he did help to pull Iraq back from the brink of total catastrophe. FM 3-24 is far from a guaranteed recipe for victory over insurgents, even with Petraeus in charge. The general had far more mixed results as commander in Afghanistan in 2010-2011.

Nominating someone for secretary of state who is currently serving probation for leaking classified material is an unsavory choice. But an administration that fails to understand the nature of war would be even worse.