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Richard Klass Headshot

The Selling of the President's War

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The presentation to Congress by general David H. Petraeus was not an analytical military situation report it was a sales pitch for the president's policy. I trust Gen. Petraeus when he insists that his opening statement was not vetted by the White House. It did not have to be. But it would be naïve to assert that in the dozens of video conferences and conversations over the last few months and in the meeting in an air base in al Anbar that the general did not know the outcome the president sought. He knew the product his boss wanted to sell and the general made the best pitch he could.

After some twenty years in sales and marketing, it is easy to spot the classic sales techniques than Gen. Petraeus employed. First he hyped his product by making false claims. For example, he touted the surge as responsible for the change of fortunes in al-Anbar: "no one would have dared to forecast that Anbar Province would have been transformed the way it has in the past 6 months." But the transformation in al Anbar started in September 2006 and Gen. Petraeus acknowledged this in his January testimony to Congress. Similarly, he credited the surge with reducing sectarian violence in Baghdad. But he did not mention that this may be largely based on ethnic cleansing The city that was once 65% Suni is now 75% Shia. The sects have separated, the target rich environment eliminated.

One of the most effective techniques is to skew results by a careful selection of points of reference. For example, in one chart showing the reduction in attacks across the country and in Baghdad, the starting reference point is December 2006. That is compared to the level in August 2007 and the reduction is dramatic. But the major reductions took place in the January to March period, before the surge took effect. The level of violence has been essentially flat since. But these nuances are easily missed in a "death by PowerPoint" presentation as the charts roll by. (The "mean time to failure", the time it takes for the audience to understand the chart, can be calculated based on the complexity of the chart and the charts changed before that point is reached.) Essential for this technique to succeed is to present massive amounts of data with no explanation of methodology.

Any successful product sales pitch must avoid mentioning "harmful side effects." Thus there is no mention in the presentation that according to a United Nations Commission on Migration, refugee flows have doubled since the surge began. Nor is there any mention that the surge has not facilitated an increase in electrical output, sanitation improvements or potable water availability. Other ignored facts are that 70 percent of Iraqis surveyed in a new ABC, BBC and NHK poll report that the surge has "worsened rather than improved security." The number of Iraqis who describe things as "going badly" has increased by 13 points to 71% since the surge began.

Finally when selling a product, it is helpful to make a virtue of necessity. There is a classic story of a firm trying to sell canned white salmon. They come up with the slogan "guaranteed not to turn pink in the can." Similarly the general "recommended" that a Marine Corps unit be withdrawn next month and the surge brigades be withdrawn starting next spring and ending next August. But these rotations are already scheduled and any extension of the tours for the surge brigades beyond 15 months now scheduled have been ruled out by the Secretary of Defense and the Army Chief of Staff.

One must also be careful to parse words in any future promise. Gen. Petraeus did not commit to reducing forces to the pre-surge level by next summer. He carefully committed to reducing the number of combat brigades to the pre-surge level. He did on commit to reducing the additional thousands of support troops sent with those combat brigades. Technically, his commitment could be made but the troop levels could be 140,000, not 130,000. Precise ambiguity can cover a multitude of contingencies.

Gen. Petraeus could have put together a cold, hard analysis on the good and the bad resulting from the surge and then given his best judgment on how to proceed. Instead he chose to make a sales pitch for the president, knowing full well what his boss wanted him to do. There are serious and grave questions as to whether this is the role of a professional military officer, especially when he is reporting to Congress, a co-equal branch of government. Does he not owe as much candor and loyalty to the body that confirmed him as to the president who nominated him?