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Petraeus Opts Out of Politics -- or Does He?

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In a recent exchange with a reporter, General David Petraeus volunteered the following:

You know, I made a private decision some years back when I was promoted to Major General that I was just going to stop voting. And I did that, again, not for public consumption, although it's subsequently become public consumption. I did it because I thought senior leaders should be apolitical.

Pressed to expand on that comment, Petraeus went on to say, "I'm certainly not the first to do it. General (George C.) Marshall obviously quite famously did that as well."

Petraeus is right about Marshall. Chief of staff of the U. S. Army throughout World War II and still today the great paladin of military professionalism, Marshall believed that for officers -- especially very senior officers -- voting itself constituted a partisan act. It signified a preference for one party over the other. In Marshall's view, such preferences were at odds with an officer's obligation to serve as a disinterested servant of the state -- regardless of who happened to occupy the White House or which party happened to control the Congress. Committed to the proposition that the officer corps should remain above politics, Marshall therefore decided as a matter of principle to refrain from exercising the franchise. He understood that in all respects officers remained citizens. They could vote. He simply believed that as military professionals they should choose of their own volition not to do so. Marshall was leading by example.

General Petraeus -- easily the most influential military officer of his generation -- has now signaled his adherence to the tradition of General Marshall.

There is good news and bad news here.

The good news derives from the bad news. In the aftermath of Vietnam, the officer corps lost sight of the values to which General Marshall adhered. It took on a partisan cast. In the 1980s and 1990s, a military that increasingly saw itself as a bastion of "conservative values" in an increasingly "liberal" society began to identify its own interests with those of the ostensibly conservative Republican Party.

When the liberal Democrat Bill Clinton became president in 1992, members of the officer corps made little attempt to conceal their contempt for the commander-in-chief. One U. S. Air Force general described Clinton's chief characteristics as "dope-smoking," "skirt-chasing," and "draft-dodging." As soon as Clinton took office, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, then led by General Colin Powell, seized upon the issue of gays-in-the-military to publicly humiliate their new boss. During the campaign Clinton had vowed if elected to issue an executive order allowing gays to serve openly in the armed forces. The JCS forced Clinton to back away from that promise, thereby demonstrating their ability to veto any presidential initiative not to their liking. Clinton found himself obliged in effect to bargain with and make concessions to his senior military advisers, with don't-ask-don't tell the result.

As the twentieth century drew to a close, one of the dirty little secrets of American politics was that far from standing apart from politics, the military had become a reliable constituency of the Republican Party. Just as blacks and members of teachers' unions voted Democratic, soldiers could be counted on to cast their ballots for the GOP. When the contested presidential election of 2000 came down to counting absentee ballots in Florida, Republicans rejoiced: since many of those absentee voters were soldiers and sailors registered in that state but serving elsewhere, Republican operatives were confident that George W. Bush enjoyed an advantage. They calculated correctly.

As the officer corps assumed an increasingly Republican coloration, Democrats fought back -- not by insisting that the officer corps abstain from partisanship, but by trying to demonstrate that there were plenty of officers who identified with their own party. Hence, the quadrennial competition to recruit retired admirals and generals willing to declare their presidential preferences. In the current cycle, Senator Obama seemingly won that competition by landing the endorsement of the hitherto-Republican General Powell. Yet Senator McCain immediately responded to the Powell endorsement by bragging that he already had a bulging roster of 400 former senior officers lined up in his corner.

So if Petraeus's statement that "senior leaders should be apolitical" reflects the beginnings of a retreat from the partisanship that has infected the officer corps, that will be all to the good. Indeed, General Petraeus will perform a signal service to the military profession and to the nation if he genuinely honors that commitment.

Still, one wonders. Since he burst upon the scene during the invasion of Iraq back in 2003, Petraeus has displayed a political sophistication and savvy not seen in any senior officer since Colin Powell himself left active duty. Among other things, the general possesses and does not hesitate to deploy (as did Powell) a remarkable aptitude for courting politicians and members of the press. Rather than seeing war and politics as distinctive spheres, with soldiers confined to the former and civilian leaders dominating the latter, Petraeus understands (correctly) that the two spheres are inextricably linked. To restrict soldiers to a specific arena of activity -- to limit their role to issues directly related to warfighting -- makes little sense and would be self-defeating. This is especially true in an era when the United States remains committed to waging an open-ended global war against the forces of violent Islamic radicalism.

The so-called "Long War" is a political war par excellence, with "politics" here having a domestic as well as an international aspect -- a reality apparent in the way that the Bush administration suppressed doubts about the "surge" in Iraq by employing Petraeus as its de facto spokesman. To criticize the policy became tantamount to criticizing the general, which few members of Congress or the media were willing to do.

Was Petraeus the administration's willing dupe? Or was he shrewdly pursuing his own game that just happened to coincide with the administration's? Who exactly was playing whom?

The question still to be determined is this: what role does Petraeus foresee himself playing as this deeply politicized war extends beyond the Bush presidency? Will he confine himself to rendering disinterested professional advice? Should Barack Obama win the election, will the apolitical soldier bow to the wishes of his new civilian master -- despite Obama's opposition to the war in which Petraeus built his reputation? We should hope so.

Yet by claiming to be apolitical -- someone who stands "above" mere politics -- Petraeus might also be positioning himself to assert a role not only in implementing policy but in shaping policy to suit his own agenda, in Iraq and elsewhere. In that event, General Marshall just might end up turning over in his grave.

Andrew J. Bacevich is professor of history and international relations at Boston University. His new book is The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism.