You can say this for David Petraeus... (with big-time update)

... who will soon take over military command in Iraq:

Those who like or admire him, among them many members of the press (including me), think he is smart, imaginative, adaptable. Those who resent him, among them many of his officer-corps contemporaries, think he is too flashy, ostentatiously intellectual, publicity-minded, and above all ambitious, and that he would do anything for promotion and the next star.

But he has now agreed to accept a job in which he is very, very likely to fail -- or to be seen as failing, two or three years from now.

If the situation in Iraq is not impossible it is the next thing to that. Petraeus could well do a vastly "better" job than his predecessor commanders George Casey or the hapless Ricardo Sanchez, and still not come close to doing "enough" to hold Iraq together or give the United States any decent option. When the Bush Administration leaves office in two years, Petraeus is likely to be one more figure tarnished and compromised by Iraq -- a list that starts with Colin Powell and is becoming very, very long.

So give this to him on a purely personal: he accepted the impossible job. Yes, it brings the fourth star of a "full" general officer and in that way the highest measure of success within the military, which Petraeus is assumed to have been aspiring to since his graduation from West Point in 1974. But there might have been other ways toward that star with less risk of lasting, historical failure. Petraeus is one of the few officers to have completed two important missions in Iraq -- during the war, with the 101st Airborne, and after that as the officer in charge of training Iraqi troops -- with his reputation enhanced rather than diminished. Just based on "realities on the ground," it's hard to see how he can come out of this third stint looking better rather than worse. So to General Petraeus: congratulations.

On the other hand -- and this is the update, a point so obvious I simply neglected to include it before: if there is honor in Petraeus' taking on this assignment, there is only tragic folly in the idea that what he should oversee is the long-touted "surge" in troops. The proposition that Iraq can be "fixed" by an increase in troop numbers that is (a) modest enough not to require a huge re-mobilization and reconfiguration of U.S. deployments around the world, and (b) brief enough to count as a "surge" rather than an "escalation" or "re-invasion," is fantasy.

To be more precise, the argument that it will work rests on elements each one of which is reasonable but that together do not constitute a case for increasing rather than decreasing America's stake in Iraq. These include: the unstated (by the Administration) recognition that the current course is failing; the belated admission (though again, not publicly by the Administration) that more troops might have made a big difference four years ago; the knowledge that Petraeus has been heavily involved in internal military efforts to lay out a more successful counter-insurgent strategy; and the ever-tempting and always-misleading "next six months will be decisive" fallacy.

Conceivably 20,000 U.S. troops could make things look better around Baghdad for a brief enough time to let the Administration declare "success" and turn things over to the Iraqis. Conceivably. But not probably; if anything, it's more likely that more troops will mean more targets for IEDs, more large-scale urban combat (with all that does to win "hearts and minds"), and an even higher-stakes disaster. The former Special Forces officer W. Patrick Lang and the former Pentagon budget analyst/ revolutionary-for-truth Franklin "Chuck" Spinney have each recently made this point, in two separate posts both called "Stalingrad on the Tigris." (Spinney's here; Lang's, here.)

And if it's unlikely that a "surge" would improve circumstances in the short term, it is inconceivable that a relatively small increase in troops, even with leadership that has learned from nearly four years of gross errors, could reverse the situation in the largest sense.

So again: Petraeus has believed in the "surge," so he is doing the personally honorable thing in agreeing to lead it. But the country would be doing the wrong thing -- another wrong thing -- in increasing rather than decreasing its exposure to the disaster it has helped create. It is hard to imagine that this is what the public was voting for two months ago.