Here's something Americans looking to end the Iraq war could learn from military strategists: You can lose a battle before it starts, when you decide where and how to engage. Take yesterday's testimony from Gen. Petraeus. Congressional leaders looking for a way out of the quagmire stumbled before they even began. They haven't asked one simple question:
Where is Gen. Petraeus' boss?
Admiral William J. Fallon is the head of CENTCOM, responsible not only for Iraq but for all our current and potential military activity in the region. It's well known in Washington circles that Admiral Fallon has a far more realistic view of the war, considers the "Surge" a failure (as do most security experts), and wants to substantially draw down our troop presence in Iraq.
The administration knows that the press and public want to put a "face" to every effort, however. They knew that media coverage and political attention would become fixed on Gen. Petraeus, whose views on the war are similar to their own. Democratic war opponents haplessly played along, investing Gen. Petraeus with a stature and authority that neither history nor rank suggests he should hold.
As for Gen. Petraeus himself, Paul Rieckhoff is right: Personal attacks by MoveOn.org and others are out of line. What's more, they're tactically foolish. However negative, these attacks play into the administration's strategy of personalizing the war around the identity of Petraeus himself.
While we all agree that "war is too important to be left to the generals," in this case it should be left to the military community itself to render judgment on Gen. Petraeus. (Even MoveOn's "Gen. Betray Us" sobriquet was first used by a retired general - but this kind of name-calling should be beneath an organized group of war critics.)
Col. Jeffrey McMaster wrote a Ph.D. thesis called "Dereliction of Duty" about the unwillingness of military leaders to tell truth to power during the Vietnam War, and how military disaster resulted from the actions of overly ambitious officers. Before it was released in book form it was xeroxed and passed from hand to hand among young officers, in a kind of military samizdat. Once it was published, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Hugh Shelton distributed it to his senior officers and brought McMaster in to address them.
One of the strangest developments to come out of the occupation of Iraq is the alliance between retired generals and liberal opponents of the war. Both want to see an end to our presence there. Both groups know our mission there is ill-defined and futile. Both groups know the ongoing occupation is damaging our military.
And both groups support the troops.
War opponents in and out of Congress shouldn't focus any more attention on Gen. Petraeus. Going forward, they should insist that committee chairs in the House and Senate solicit testimony from experienced officers - leaders who lack political ambition, and who possess the experience and wisdom to offer good advice to Congress and the public.
They should start by calling on Admiral Fallon.