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Will Petraeus Be Like Ike?

As his achievements pile up, speculation grows that superstar Gen. David Petraeus will run for the White House. Our June cover story.

By From the May 2010 issue

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In the early stages of implementing the surge strategy in Iraq, United States military commanders started to detect that the new plan was working, but the signs of progress were overshadowed as casualties mounted while American soldiers fought to secure the cities.

During a meeting around this time, a senior officer put his arm around Gen. David Petraeus, then leading the war effort in Iraq, and advised, "You know, you've got a messaging problem."

Petraeus replied, "With all due respect, what we really have is a results problem."

In late March of this year, Petraeus recalled the encounter at a press conference held during a trip to Manchester, New Hampshire. He punctuated the story by noting, "Occasionally, I can hear my old Dutch-American sea captain father, who would periodically remind his son, 'It's about results, boy.'"

At a time when the U.S. is facing multiple crises at home and abroad and Americans are increasingly disenchanted with Washington, Petraeus's record of accomplishments -- most prominently helping to turn around the Iraq war that many had written off as lost -- has set him apart from other national leaders. And as the Republican Party struggles to repair the image for incompetence it gained during the Bush era, Petraeus finds himself the subject of continued speculation as to whether he may seek the presidency, no matter how many times he tries to put the issue to rest.

"I'd like to see Gen. Petraeus warm up," Bob Dole, the former Senate Majority Leader and 1996 Republican presidential nominee, told the Politico last fall. "I don't know anything about his politics, whether he has an interest. It's kind of a time for another Eisenhower, in my view."

Observers including Rep. Pete King (R-NY) and former McCain-Palin adviser Nicolle Wallace have also floated the idea of a Petraeus candidacy. As he tours the country to discuss the status of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in his current role as leader of U.S. Central Command (based in Tampa, Florida), the general constantly encounters questions about his political ambitions. So when he scheduled an appearance at Manchester's St. Anselm College, the home of the New Hampshire Institute of Politics -- and the site of presidential debates -- it naturally raised eyebrows.

Petraeus has become so accustomed to the presidential speculation that he's developed a habit of inviting the question just so he can get it out of the way. When one reporter asked him what he was doing in New Hampshire, Petraeus explained that it was part of a broader effort to be "accessible" to the American people, "to communicate to them what America's sons and daughters are doing." But at the end of his answer, he added, "If you want to ask a more direct question, I'd be happy to say...."

When another reporter followed up by asking whether he had considered that a visit to the Granite State might fuel presidential speculation, he launched into an emphatic denial of any desire to run.

"I thought I'd said no about as many ways as I could," he said. "I really do mean no. We have all these artful ways of doing that. I've tried Shermanesque responses, which everybody goes and finds out what Sherman said was pretty unequivocally no. I've done several different ways. I've tried quoting the country song, ‘What Part of No Don't You Understand?' But I mean, I really do mean that. I feel very privileged to be able to serve our country. I'm honored to continue to do that as long as I can contribute, but I will not, ever, run for political office, I can assure you. And again, we have said that repeatedly and I'm hoping that people realize at a certain point you say it so many times that there's no way you could ever flip, and start your career by flip-flopping into it."

In spite of his repeated denials and the fact that his responsibilities in managing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan would, at a minimum, logistically complicate any run against President Obama in 2012, several factors are likely to ensure that Petraeus's name keeps popping up as a potential dark horse candidate. One reason is that there's no clear standout among the politicians frequently cited as potential Republican nominees. (Though he says he hasn't voted since 2002, Petraeus acknowledges that he was registered as a Republican before that.) Another is that history is filled with examples of people who say that they'll never run but then change their mind-- Dwight D. Eisenhower being the most relevant one in this case. But ultimately, it's the nature of Petraeus's meteoric rise through the ranks, coupled with his ambition and fierce competitiveness, that will continue to make people wonder whether he'll eventually want to take on even more responsibility.

DAVID HOWELL PETRAEUS was born on November 7, 1952, in Cornwall-on-Hudson, just a few miles from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, where he went to college. His Dutch father, Sixtus, immigrated to New York at the beginning of World War II and went on to lead a Liberty ship. His Brooklyn-born mother, Miriam, was a librarian who, according to a recent profile in Vanity Fair, helped instill in Petraeus his love of reading.

After completing high school with honors, Petraeus went on to West Point, where he graduated in the top 5 percent of his class in 1974, while managing to finish a pre-med program as well as compete in soccer and skiing. According to the yearbook, Petraeus "was always going for it in sports, academics, leadership, and even his social life." In fact, upon graduation, he got engaged to Holly Knowlton, whose father was superintendent of West Point at the time. His wife's family made their home in New London, New Hampshire, which Petraeus still claims as his own official residence -- a fact that hasn't gone unnoticed by political reporters.

Standing at a slight 5 feet nine, Petraeus has a reputation for being incredibly tough and in remarkable physical shape, a legend that he has added to ever since being the top graduate from the grueling Army Ranger School.

In 1991, Petraeus had a brush with death at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, when a soldier fell and accidentally fired an M-16 round that landed above the "A" in PETRAEUS on his uniform. The bullet shot through his chest and went out his back.

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.

Eisenhower started being pressed about a possible political career as early as 1943, in the thick of World War II. After the war concluded, speculation mushroomed. His diary entries and letters to close friends in the following years reflect his frustration that journalists and political figures simply could not accept that he really meant it when he said he had no desire to run for president.

"I cannot conceive of any set of circumstances that could ever drag out of me permission to consider me for any political post from Dog Catcher to ‘Grand High Supreme King of the Universe,'" he wrote to his boyhood friend, Everett "Swede" Hazlett, on March 13, 1946.

On August 25, 1947, he wrote to Hazlett, "It is difficult for many people -- particularly those who have led a political life or are engaged in newspaper or radio work -- to believe anyone who disclaims political ambition."

In the run-up to the 1948 campaign, Eisenhower was recruited by both parties, and Leonard Finder, publisher of the Manchester Union Leader, wanted to lead an effort to put Eisenhower on the ballot for the state's primary. In response, Eisenhower -- who at the time was Army chief of staff but would soon leave to become president of Columbia University -- issued a statement, declaring, "I am not available for and could not accept nomination to high political office." He insisted that the "decision to remove myself completely from the political scene is definite and positive."

After issuing the statement, he expressed his sense of relief to Hazlett, explaining, "Now that it is done, I can at least devote my mind unreservedly to a number of other important things and will not feel like I am constantly on the ‘witness stand.'"

Eisenhower continued to disclaim any interest in the presidency, both publicly and in his private correspondences, over the next several years. But eventually, a confluence of factors led him to change his mind.

His writing reflected his increasing concern that the country was moving toward a "cradle to grave" welfare state, which allied him with Republicans. At the same time, he found the party to be dominated by extremists who were too nasty and negative. There was a fear among the party establishment that if the Republicans lost the 1952 election -- having last won the presidency in 1928 -- it would effectively end the two-party system.

In December 1950, Eisenhower agreed to become supreme commander of NATO. He arranged a meeting with the non-interventionist conservative U.S. senator Robert Taft, who was seen as a top contender for the 1952 Republican nomination. Eisenhower was ready to issue a statement definitively removing himself from politics if Taft agreed to support NATO, but he was unable to extract such a commitment. Over time, supporters convinced Eisenhower that he had a duty to run to serve the American people who were desperate for change. He was particularly moved when a midnight Eisenhower rally attracted 33,000 backers to Madison Square Garden (a prominent supporter flew to Paris to show him a film of the February 1952 event).

THE NATURE OF POLITICS has changed so much in the 60 years since Eisenhower ran that it would be difficult to replicate such a series of events. In Eisenhower's time, the primaries were virtually meaningless, and delegates often chose the nominee in closed-door meetings. Eisenhower managed to win the New Hampshire primary without even campaigning, while based in Europe commanding NATO. He didn't even return to America until June 1, 1952 -- just five months before the general election. He managed to win the nomination at the convention, which turned into a battle between Northeastern establishment Republicans and the conservative Taft supporters.

It's hard to see how Petraeus could make any similar transition ahead of the 2012 election, given how modern campaigns work. Right now, several prospective Republican candidates already have political action committees set up, as well as skeleton staffs. If the schedule is similar to the last presidential election cycle, it means that candidates will begin to form exploratory committees by the end of this year and spend 2011 touring the early primary states and debating one another. It's hard to envision any scenario under which Petraeus would abandon his post during a critical stage of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan so that he could barnstorm around Iowa and New Hampshire making political speeches attacking the commander in chief. And if he did, it would undermine the very qualities that make him attractive as a potential candidate to begin with. On top of this, right now, Americans are more concerned with domestic issues like the economy and health care than they are with national security matters.

Thus, if Petraeus were ever to decide to run for president, it's unlikely to happen before the 2016 election. Even then, there are a lot of important differences remaining between a potential Petraeus candidacy and Eisenhower's run for president -- and not just the fact that his name won't lend itself to a jingle akin to "We like Ike."

Most importantly, Eisenhower was much more widely known in America as commander of a popular war. Taking nothing away from Petraeus's accomplishments in Iraq given the cards he was dealt, the reality is that most Americans think the war was a mistake and many don't even know Petraeus. In addition, even if Americans view the war in Afghanistan -- as well as the broader war on terrorism --as more necessary, it still won't reach as satisfying a conclusion as World War II.

"This is not the kind of war where you take the hill, plant the flag, and go home to a victory parade," Petraeus said when discussing the campaign against al Qaeda, but he could have just as easily been discussing his political future.

If Petraeus entered a Republican primary battle, he'd no longer be treated with the deference typically paid to high-ranking military officers, and would be subject both to personal attacks and interrogations about his domestic policy views, which remain unknown. There was a time when Colin Powell was seen as a potential Republican candidate, but that speculation evaporated as some of his more liberal positions became known.

It's also hard to know how Petraeus would perform as a campaigner, which requires a unique skill set that doesn't always come naturally. In 2004, many Democrats thought they had a winner in Wesley Clark, the anti-Iraq war general, but his boomlet quickly fizzled due to his awkwardness as a candidate.

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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Philip Klein is The American Spectator's Washington correspondent. You can follow him on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/Philipaklein