Shattering the Petraeus mystique

The former general's disgrace is being portrayed as a national disaster. Truth is he was no miracle worker

Topics: CIA, Libya, GlobalPost, David Petraeus, Benghazi,

Shattering the Petraeus mystique (Credit: AP/Haraz N. Ghanbari)
This article originally appeared on GlobalPost.

Global Post BUZZARDS BAY, Mass. — The rhetoric surrounding David Petraeus’ fall from grace has been nothing short of epic. The tawdry affair of the general and the biographer has assumed the proportions of a Shakespearean tragedy, complete with a tragically flawed hero and an evil temptress.

The media has been gushing, even fawning, in its description of Petraeus’ accomplishments, and his disgrace is being portrayed as a national disaster.

The reality is much more mundane, as is the man at the center of all the fuss. His fall from grace is a personal tragedy, and he and his family will have to deal with that. Petraeus was a fine officer with a keen mind and an impressive work ethic. But he is not the miracle worker that is now being painted.

Even in disgrace, Petraeus is indispensable. The just-resigned CIA director was called to testify Friday at congressional hearings about the September attacks on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya.

Much of his reputation rests on his performance during the war in Iraq. When Petraeus arrived in Baghdad in February 2007, the country was one of the most violent places on Earth. He oversaw the surge, which cut down on the killing and provided time and political cover for the United States to withdraw.

It did not, however, pacify the country. Iraq today is witnessing increasing levels of violence, much of which goes unremarked by the American public since U.S. troops are no longer in harm’s way there.

“Under General Petraeus’ stewardship, the overall violence in Iraq was reduced,” said Joshua Foust, a fellow at the American Security Project who has written extensively on Iraq and Afghanistan. “Even if this dip was temporary, it gave the United States space to withdraw.”

In Afghanistan, where Petraeus took over from Gen. Stanley McChrystal in July 2010 and handed over command to Gen. John Allen a year later, his legacy will be much more problematic.

“Petraeus was very successful in creating the illusion of success,” said Alex Strick van Linschoten, a writer and researcher who has produced several books on Afghanistan. “He was very successful at playing the media, even when the facts did not add up.”



All too often, Petraeus’ claims did not correspond to reality.

In December 2010, the CIA released a National Intelligence Estimate with a very downbeat evaluation of the war in Afghanistan. The Taliban was making significant gains, said the report, and large swaths of the country were in danger of falling to the enemy.

Meanwhile, Petraeus was touting the “fragile and reversible” gains that were being made.

“Well, most of them were reversed,” says Foust.

During Petraeus’ tenure, violence in Afghanistan actually increased. He more than doubled the number of “night raids,” the kill/capture missions that he claimed were decimating the Taliban’s command structure. But these missions caused untold hardship for Afghans, who were frequently caught in the crossfire, and spurred Afghan President Hamid Karzai to all but declare war on NATO.

“Petraeus was fond of metrics,” Foust said. “He would release the body counts, and claim that these kill/capture missions were the most successful tactic in the war. In reality, a distressingly high percentage of those captured were released within days.”

That number topped 80 percent, according to researcher Gareth Porter.

But NATO in Afghanistan, with Petraeus at its head, would seldom admit mistakes.

In one widely publicized incident, Petraeus continued to insist that an airstrike that killed 17 people had targeted the right person, even after it had been demonstrated beyond a reasonable doubt that the supposed target was still alive and well, and that those killed had been election workers on a campaign trip.

In PBS’ “Frontline” program, correspondent Stephen Grey asked the general pointblank: “Can I just ask you how that operation came into being: What made you think this was the man that you were targeting?”

Petraeus answered firmly, staring straight into the camera: “Well, we didn’t think in this case, with respect, we knew. We had days and days of what’s called ‘the unblinking eye,’ confirmed by other forms of intelligence, that informed us that this — there’s no question about who this individual was.”

According to Foust, who recently wrote a piece for The Atlantic magazine called “Myopia: How Counter-Terrorism Has Blinded Our Intelligence Community,” this is a common affliction among spies.

“People at a sufficiently high level of the intelligence community become so focused on their internal channels that they discount anything that is outside of it,” he said. “Even when that information may be more reliable.”

For Strick, it is even simpler.

“Petraeus was caught red-handed getting it wrong and still would not back down,” said Strick. “He was intent on allowing the operation to have the appearance of success in order to give the United States the opportunity to leave Afghanistan while saving face.”

This, says Strick, is one of the reasons for the schadenfreude that many old Afghans hands are feeling.

“Some are rubbing their hands in glee at Petraeus’ downfall,” he said. “It is the difference between his purported self-discipline and the messiness, the sloppiness of real life.”

There certainly has been quite a bit of breast-beating among those in the media who contributed to creating the “King David” myth. Spencer Ackerman, a national security and defense blogger for Wired magazine, recently posted a piece on the magazine’s website titled “How I Was Drawn into the Cult of David Petraeus.”

He details how the myth-making machine operated, the stroking of sympathetic journalists, the exclusion of those more critical.

“A lot of the journalism around Petraeus gave him a pass, and I wrote too much of it,” he said. “Writing critically about a public figure you come to admire is a journalistic challenge.”

Jon Lee Anderson, writing in The New Yorker, was even more direct: “[Petraeus’] lionization by admiring and opportunistic politicians and fawning journalists and biographers … has been craven and boundless,” he writes. “In Afghanistan … there was no Petraeus miracle. In spite of an Iraq-style surge and a much-vaunted counterinsurgency strategy overseen by Petraeus, the Taliban have proven unbeatable.”

Perhaps Petraeus is not yet finished. As history has shown, sexual peccadilloes are no barrier to high office — think of Bill Clinton, John F. Kennedy, Dwight D. Eisenhower and even Thomas Jefferson.”

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>