David Petraeus and the "New Jesus" problem

One memoir of life at the New Yorker under its founding editor, Harold Ross -- maybe it was James Thurber's The Years with Ross, maybe Brendan Gill's Here at the New Yorker -- described the concept of the "New Jesus." Everyone who has ever worked in an office will recognize the idea. The New Jesus is the guy the boss has just brought in to solve the problems that the slackers and idiots already on the staff cannot handle. Of course sooner or later the New Jesus himself turns into a slacker or idiot, and the search for the next Jesus begins.

As has been widely noted, Gen. David Petraeus is getting the full New Jesus treatment. It's underway to an extent I can barely remember happening before. OK, maybe one exception: When Coach Joe Gibbs was brought back to "save" the Washington Redskins three years ago, under their lamentable owner, Dan Snyder. The subsequent travails of Coach Gibbs illustrate the standard New Jesus cycle.

Petraeus is a serious man, but the expectations being heaped on him are simply laughable, and it's worth noting the proportions this phenomenon has taken on.

At his press conference last week, President Bush essentially answered every question about Iraq with the word "Petraeus." Actually, the word the President used was "David" -- before recovering himself and remembering to give his last name or say "General Petraeus." (Perhaps Bush realized that a president does no favor to an "independent" commander by portraying him in public as a buddy?) For instance, a reporter asked how long America should wait to see if the "surge" is working?

How long does one wait? I will repeat, as the Commander-in-Chief of a great military who has supported this military and will continue to support this military, not only with my -- with insisting that we get resources to them, but with -- by respecting the command structure, I'm going to wait for David to come back -- David Petraeus to come back and give us the report on what he sees.

This phenomenon has been noted -- in particular by Thomas Ricks and Matthew Yglesias here and here -- but it is worth emphasizing how fundamental "New Jesus" thinking has become to the entire case for the Administration's strategy. In his appearance with Sen. Jim Webb this weekend on Meet the Press, Sen. Lindsay Graham sounded as if the all-knowing Petraeus could see past obstacles that blocked ordinary men:

I will not vote for anything until generous—General Petraeus passes on it. No senator, no congressman—no matter how much I respect you—you’re not going to be able, in my opinion, to give the advice that General Petraeus can give, and I’m going to wait till he comes back and listen to his advice and not some politician

The recent astounding column by Wiliam Kristol had a similar "Petraeus will save us" tone: "What it comes down to is this: If Petraeus succeeds in Iraq, and a Republican wins in 2008, Bush will be viewed as a successful president."

It's tempting to spend more time on that one sentence of Kristol's ("What it comes down to is this: If I can beat Roger Federer, I'll be successful at Wimbledon.") The real point involves Petraeus.

He is a smart man. He is a brave man, not just in the obvious sense but also for reminding his troops soon after taking command in Iraq that there are still proper rules of conduct, even though we are "a nation at war."

But -- and in the current context, this may come as a shock -- he is not Jesus, nor is he supernatural in any way. His manual of counter insurgency strategy is a big step forward from the stupid brutalize- and-alienate approach of the early stage of the Iraqi occupation. (The manual is here -- a 12 meg PDF download.) But that manual and its underlying strategy -- which I heard discussed and thrashed out by Petraeus and his colleagues at Ft. Leavenworth last spring; I think Tom Ricks was there for that conference, and I know that Kristol and Graham weren't -- is neither magical nor holy. It is not going to undo what has gone wrong in the last four-plus years. It is not going to make the Maliki government seem legitimate, and it is not even going to shape up the Iraqi security forces.

The plight of those forces underscores the point. Before he went to Ft. Leavenworth, David Petraeus' assignment was to create an Iraqi defense force -- to allow them to "stand up" so Americans could "stand down." His approach was shrewd, intelligent, wise, and an improvement on what had gone before. But it failed. The problem was bigger than he was.

"Bush has the good fortune of having finally found his Ulysses S. Grant, or his Creighton Abrams, in Gen. David H. Petraeus," the irrepressible Kristol writes. The two examples are instructive. Grant made a huge difference for the Union -- but the Union had countless other advantages too. Abrams was the best commander for the United States in Vietnam, but that problem was larger than he was. Let's not even think about Coach Gibbs.

It can only be flattering for Petraeus to be treated, for now, as if he is larger than any conceivable challenge. But I think he is shrewd enough to know how this is likely to end.