As his achievements pile up, speculation grows that superstar Gen. David Petraeus will run for the White House. Our June cover story.
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Recalling the incident in a 2004 Washington Post article, Brig. Gen. Jack Keane, who was on the scene, described what followed: “We got him to the hospital at Campbell and they jammed a chest tube in. It’s excruciating. Normally a guy screams and his body comes right off the table. All Petraeus did was grunt a little bit. His body didn’t even move. The surgeon told me, ‘That’s the toughest guy I ever had my hands on.’”
Eventually, he was rushed to Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, where a surgeon by the name of Bill Frist — yes, the future Republican Senate Majority Leader — successfully operated on him.
“Petraeus recuperated at the Fort Campbell hospital,” Keane went on to recall, “and he was driving the hospital commander crazy, trying to convince the doctors to discharge him. He said, ‘I am not the norm. I’m ready to get out of here and I’m ready to prove it to you.’ He had them pull the tubes out of his arm. Then he hopped out of bed and did 50 push-ups. They let him go home.”
In 2000, Petraeus shattered his pelvis when a parachute malfunctioned at a height of 60 feet while he was skydiving.
Yet in spite of the injuries, before the Iraq war started, Petraeus completed a 10-mile race in under 64 minutes — at age 49. He’s also reportedly known for challenging younger subordinates to one-handed push-up contests. “It’s hard to lead from the front if you are in the rear of the formation,” he’s said.
At the start of the Iraq war, Petraeus commanded the 101st Airborne Division (the “Screaming Eagles”), and sensed early on that the U.S. was in for a long, difficult fight. “Tell me how this ends,” he famously told embedded reporter Rick Atkinson just days into the conflict.
What makes Petraeus unique is that his military record is paired with serious academic achievements: he has earned a master’s in public affairs and a PhD from Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. In his 1987 doctoral thesis, Petraeus examined the effects of the Vietnam War on the military, a work that planted the seeds for his eventual authorship of the U.S. Army’s counterinsurgency manual, which was published in 2006 and provided the basis for the surge strategy. When President Bush gave him the reins in Iraq in early 2007, it was an opportunity for him to apply his scholarship to reality.
“The real surge in Iraq was the surge of ideas,” Petraeus explained during his New Hampshire appearance. While the increase in troops enabled the military to carry out the strategy, he said, the key was to change the way the war was being conducted. The new strategy, he said, “was to focus on securing the population rather than transitioning tasks to Iraqis. And to secure them by living with the people. And to promote the reconciliation.”
Petraeus would be the first to caution that the U.S. isn’t out of the woods in Iraq. “There’s nobody who’s even removed the champagne bottle from the back of the refrigerator yet, I can assure you,” he said. But at the same time, the progress is undeniable.
When he took command in Iraq, the U.S. was facing the prospect of another Vietnam-style humiliation. Withdrawing could have meant leaving behind a civil war with likely spillover effects throughout the region and risking a failed state that could serve as a base for al Qaeda.
But a lot has changed since then. While violence peaked with more than 220 daily insurgent attacks in May 2007, now that number is consistently below 20. Iraqi civilian deaths, which reached 34,500 in 2006, according to the Brookings Institution, fell to 3,000 in 2009. Though 904 U.S. troops died in 2007, the number dropped to 149 in 2009, and stood at 16 for the first three months of 2010.
In March, Iraq held another round of national elections (with his typical qualified optimism, Petraeus refers to the process as “Iraqracy”). The general says that the U.S. is still on track to reduce its troop commitment to 50,000 by the end of this August, and turn combat operations over to the Iraqis.
Petraeus was promoted to head of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) in 2008, putting him in charge not just of Iraq, but also of Afghanistan. The full region under his command extends from Egypt in the west to Pakistan in the east, and from Kazakhstan in the north to Yemen in the south. Though it’s the smallest of six geographic regions the U.S. military divides the world into, CENTCOM is dealing with the most problems and has more than 210,000 military personnel.
“PRESS CONFERENCE THIS A.M. brought up again the question that is going around so much these days, ‘What am I going to do about politics?’” Gen. Eisenhower lamented in his diary on December 7, 1946. “They don’t want to believe a man that insists he will have nothing to do with politics and politicians.”
The career of Dwight D. Eisenhower — the most recent example of a military commander making the transition to commander in chief — is instructive when reflecting on the possibility that Petraeus could emerge as a presidential candidate. The experience demonstrates that even somebody who is sincere in denying interest in political office may eventually change his mind if events intervene.
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H/T to National Review Online