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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One of the qualities that has made Petraeus successful is his nuanced understanding of the area under his command and of the complexity of his mission. During congressional hearings in September 2007, Petraeus endured days of often hostile questioning, explaining the multi-layered approach to Iraq. He demonstrated that progress had been made with a cautious optimism that spoke to the concerns of skeptical Democrats.
In his public appearances these days, he’s used to giving detailed briefings with assistance from PowerPoint and his laser pointer. (He likes to joke that four-star generals have a First Amendment right to PowerPoint slides.) If he were to run for a political office, however, he’d be forced to answer questions like, “How would you describe the situation in Afghanistan?” in 30 seconds.
In March, Petraeus got a lesson in how easy it is to be taken out of context when a series of reports suggested that he was pressing the Obama administration to take a tougher line with Israel because U.S. support for the country was putting the lives of American soldiers at greater risk. Asked about these stories by TAS, Petraeus launched into a seven-minute explanation of why they were “flat wrong” and had been “spun” by blogs. In reality, he was making a much narrower point — that whether there is or is not progress on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process is one of many factors that influence the regional dynamics of his area of responsibility.
WHILE THERE ARE MANY REASONS to err on the side of skepticism about President Petraeus buzz, it also maybe too early to completely dismiss the idea out of hand. Right now, the country is focused on domestic issues, but things can change, and at some point in the future a crisis may draw Americans’ attention back to national security. This could create demand for a Petraeus candidacy — perhaps making him reconsider, like Eisenhower, out of a sense of duty. And perhaps he’d master the art of campaigning in the same way in which he’s learned to excel at everything else he’s focused on over the course of his career.
In his appearance in New Hampshire, Petraeus answered questions for an hour that had been submitted by students and members of the community. He was affable, and came prepared, with cue cards to help him remember whom to thank — and even to help him with a New England-themed joke. And in warming up the crowd, he revealed, “As a lifelong New York Yankees fan, I’m particularly honored to be welcomed in the heart of Red Sox Nation, especially since the stars are back in proper alignment after last year’s World Series.”
One thing that Petraeus emphasized repeatedly was how grateful he was that regardless of how they felt about the war, the American people continued to support the troops, which he said was a welcome contrast to how returning soldiers were treated during the Vietnam War. He recalled driving in Cambridge visiting his son at MIT a few years ago, and seeing a sign that declared, “Hate the war, love the troops.” He said, “50 percent ain’t bad, and they got the right 50 percent.” He thanked the audience for supporting soldiers both at the outset of his remarks and as he concluded.
If he were to ever seek the presidency, Petraeus would come to the task with an understanding of how the media operates, having dealt with reporting on the Iraq war.
“People are always asking, ‘Does it ever frustrate you that good news doesn’t get reported?’” Petraeus reflected. “Well, look. If it blows up, if it kills people, this is very significant. And it crowds out that day’s ribbon cutting. And that is just reality. And we have long since accepted what gets a headline and what doesn’t.”
And if he were ever to win the White House, Petraeus would bring to the job a clear management philosophy. “I generally believe in taking rearview mirrors off buses and focusing forward,” he said. This served him well as he took over the war in Iraq and couldn’t dwell on the mistakes that had been made during the first several years of the conflict.
He also talks about the importance of setting a big idea, applying it to reality, refining it based on what works and what doesn’t, and then communicating those changes throughout the organization. “We say flatten the organization as much as you’re comfortable with, and then take it another level,” he said.
Right now, Petraeus is focused on drawing down forces in Iraq and implementing the new strategy in Afghanistan. Should he continue to get impressive results, the presidential speculation will likely persist, with political analysts trying to interpret his every move, such as his decision to speak at the American Enterprise Institute’s annual dinner in Washington, D.C., in May, where he will receive the group’s Irving Kristol Award.
IN A JULY 7, 1949 DIARY ENTRY, Eisenhower recounted a visit from Thomas Dewey the day before in which the New York governor assumed Eisenhower was a Republican and that he wanted to be president. Eisenhower described himself as “flabbergasted” by the remarks.
“I must have had a funny look on my face,” Eisenhower wrote, “because [Dewey] said, ‘I know you disclaimed political ambition in a verbose, wordy document, but that was when you were just a soldier.’”
In a statement that may just as well apply to Petraeus, Eisenhower went on to observe, “This reaffirms a conviction I have formed, which is that no denial of political ambition will ever be believed…unless the disclaimer is so old he is tittering rapidly to the grave. In this case the refusal would not be a denial of ambition, merely an expression of regret.”
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