How much credence should Gen. Petraeus' reports be given?

The source being depicted as the Objective Oracle on Iraq has a long history of extreme optimism about the progress we were making in the war.

Published July 19, 2007 10:24AM (EDT)

(updated below)

(updated again with 2003-2004 statements)

(Update III)

Gen. David Petraeus, who will descend down upon Washington in September and reveal once and for all whether we are winning in Iraq, gave a lengthy interview yesterday about the Great Progress we are making with the Surge. He chose as his interviewer the hard-hitting, non-partisan, and well-regarded war journalist, Hugh Hewitt, who wrote a book last year about how Republicans will dominate our government forever and one this year on the Towering Greatness of Mitt Romney.

The "interview" consisted of Hewitt making one adoring, pro-war statement after the next, masquerading as questions, with Petraeus eagerly agreeing and then "elaborating" with the standard White House talking points. There is obviously no need to "wait until September" to know what Gen. Petraeus is going to say. It's all right there in the very first "questions" and answers from the Hewitt interview:

HH: Welcome, General. You took over command of the multinational forces in February of this year, February 10. In the past five months, how have conditions in Iraq changed?

DP: Well, obviously, we have been surging our forces during that time. We have added five Army brigade combat teams, two Marine battalions, and a Marine expeditionary unit, and some enablers, as they're called. And over the last month, that surge of forces has turned into a surge of offensive operations.

And we have achieved what we believe is a reasonable degree of tactical momentum on the ground, gains against the principal near-term threat, al Qaeda-Iraq, and also gains against what is another near-term threat, and also potentially the long term threat, Shia militia extremists as well.

As you may have heard, that today, we announced the capture of the senior Iraqi leader of al Qaeda-Iraq, and that follows in recent weeks the detention of some four different emirs, as they're called, the different area leaders of al Qaeda, six different foreign fighter facilitators, and a couple dozen other leaders, in addition to killing or capturing hundreds of other al Qaeda-Iraq operatives.

HH: Do you think al Qaeda in Iraq is buckling, General Petraeus?

DP: Well, it's probably too soon to say that, but we think that we have them off plan. Now having said that, they clearly retain and have demonstrated, tragically in recent, the past week or so, the ability to continue to carry out sensational attacks. . . .

So there has been considerable progress against them, but they do continue to receive foreign fighters through Syria, who become suicide bombers in many cases, and they do certainly have an ability to regenerate, to regroup, and to come back at us. . . .

We announced the killing of two, and it turns out three, actually, al Turki brothers. These are, not surprisingly, from Turkey originally, part of al Qaeda leadership, spent time in Afghanistan in past years, and were sent into Northern Iraq to help shore up the network up there after it took significant blows, particularly in the Mosul area. And we've managed to get the final fifty meters, if you will, on them after sort of pursuing them for some months, and did kill them several weeks ago.

It sounds like the Surge sure is working, we are winning, Al Qaeda is on the run, The Terrorists are being killed, and Freedom is on the March. But while we are making progress, there is still work ahead to be done in order to achieve Victory, so we must stay longer.

Despite the Mandate Orthodoxy that Gen. Petraeus be treated as the Objective, Unassailably Credible Oracle for how we are doing in Iraq and whether we are winning, his track record of quite dubious claims over the last several years about the war strongly negates that view. It ought to go without saying that no military commander -- particularly in the midst of a disastrous four-year war -- is entitled to blind faith and to be placed above being questioned. It is not only proper, but critically necessary, to subject happy war claims from the military to great scrutiny.

In general, military commanders do not typically pronounce their own strategies to have failed; quite the opposite. The need for skepticism here is particularly acute given that there are plenty of Generals with equally impressive military pedigrees who disagree vigorously with Petraeus. War supporters -- who are attempting now to make criticisms of Petraeus off-limits -- long disputed the claims and views of Generals Casey and Abaziad, often quite vigorously, even insultingly. The statements about war from military commanders ought to be subjected to every bit as much scrutiny and skepticism as anyone else's.

But Petraeus in particular has demonstrated that his statements merit particularly potent scrutiny. So many of the misleading government claims over the past several years about The Great Victory we are Achieving in Iraq have been based upon optimistic claims from Petraeus that turned out to be highly questionable, to put it generously.

Indeed, Americans were flooded with good news about Iraq at the end of 2005, the great bulk of which stemmed from an overwhelmingly optimistic November 2005 public report (.pdf), filled with happy news, given by Gen. Petraeus as part of a slide show at the St. Regis Hotel in Washington. Using a series of carefully selected, emotionally manipulative photographs from Iraq, Petraeus disputed "the notion that Baghdad is, if you will, chaos"; showed pictures of various Sunnis and Shiites standing together to claim that there was increasing cooperation between the two groups; and especially touted the Great Progress being made in preparing and training Iraqi forces and the Iraqi police. Petraeus' script was filled with claims like this:

The bulk of his presentation was devoted to "documenting" how much progress had been made in training Iraqi troops and police.

Predictably, Petraeus' claims spawned multiple news accounts and Op-Eds touting the Great Progress we were making in 2005 in standing up the Iraqi troops so that we could stand down, using similar though even more excited language than Petraeus used with Hewitt yesterday. The Air Force Times reported on November 5, 2005 (via Lexis):

There are more than 211,000 members of the Iraqi security force, including police, border patrol and military members, said Lt. Gen. David Petraeus, former multinational security transition commander in Iraq, and the number keeps growing. . . .

Petraeus, now the commanding general of the Army's Combined Arms Center at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., compares the training of Iraqis to a stampede, and to illustrate, he pointed to a painting by Frederick Remington.

"I can tell you there is very substantial momentum in this effort," Petraeus said, pointing to a reproduction of "The Stampede," which shows a galloping horse, during remarks at an event sponsored by the Center for Strategic and International Studies on Nov. 8 in Washington.

In November, 2005, Petraeus claimed there was "very substantial momentum" in standing up Iraqi forces; with Hewitt yesterday, it was a "reasonable degree of tactical momentum" with the Surge. Is there any doubt we will hear exactly the same thing come September?

Even in the Spring of 2006, when the Iraq civil war erupted by all accounts, comments from Petraeus continued to be cited as proof of how well our occupation was progressing. From the U.S. Army War College's Parameters in March, 2006:

Most important, there is one critical difference -- and it is that our current strategy is showing signs of succeeding. Iraq's third successful election in the course of one year provides evidence that we and the Iraqis are successfully isolating the insurgents politically, if not physically. . .

The National Strategy for Victory in Iraq states that progress on the political front has led ordinary Iraqis to provide better intelligence on insurgent activity. According to the Brookings Institution's December 2005 Iraq Index, such tips reached an all-time high in November. More important, the Iraqis' increasing commitment to the political process has led to an increasing and tangible commitment to the Iraqi state. In a key indicator, recruiting for Iraqi security forces continues to outpace requirements. Moreover, according to Lieutenant General David Petraeus, those security forces are increasingly capable of independent operations.

An article from Agence France Presse, quoting Petraeus, reported on November 7, 2005:

"Huge progress" is being made in training Iraqi combat troops, and 24 homegrown battalions have now taken control of assigned territory, the general formerly in charge of the massive program said Monday.

Lieutenant General David Petraeus said in an address that by the time of Iraq's looming election in December, it was hoped to have 230,000 trained and armed Iraq security forces operational. . . ."Twenty-four of their battalions had assumed their own battle space. That is very, very significant," Petraeus, who handed over control of the training effort in July, said.

The President himself repeatedly touted Gen. Petraeus' sunny reports in excitedly telling the country how great things were going in Iraq. From a November 2005 Bush speech:

BUSH: In contrast, the elected leaders of Iraq are proving to be strong and steadfast. By any standard or precedent of history, Iraq has made incredible political progress, from tyranny, to liberation, to national elections, to the ratification of a constitution in the space of two and a half years.


I have said as Iraqis stand up, Americans will stand down. And with our help, the Iraqi military is gaining new capabilities and new confidence with each passing month.

At the time of our Fallujah operations a year ago, there were only a few Iraqi army battalions in combat. Today, there are nearly 90 Iraqi army battalions fighting the terrorists alongside our forces.

(APPLAUSE) General David Petraeus says Iraqis are in the fight. They are fighting and dying for their country and they're fighting increasingly well.

This progress is not easy, but it is steady. And no fair-minded person should ignore, deny or dismiss the achievements of the Iraqi people.

And White House Press Releases, such as this one from November 26, 2005, repeatedly relied upon statements like this from Petreaus to convince Americans that things were going great in Iraq: "Well, Here's The Bottom Line Up-Front For You. The Iraqi Security Forces Are In The Fight; They Are Fighting For Their Country. They Are, As This Notes, Increasingly Leading That Fight."

Needless to say, Frederick Kagan -- who has been telling us for years about Victory in Iraq --- wrote an October 2005 Weekly Standard article modestly entitled "Blueprint for Victory" based in part on Petraeus' reports and wrote:

After the fiasco with the half-trained forces that fled Falluja in April 2004, CENTCOM brought in Lieutenant General David Petraeus in mid-2004 to overhaul the Iraqi army completely, with the particular goal of focusing on counterinsurgency. This undertaking has proven far more successful than the handful of light infantry divisions originally envisioned. Iraqi units performed admirably in the second battle of Falluja (in November 2004), in Tal Afar (September 2005), and in numerous other fights.

Even many months before Petraeus' slide show of Great Progress, Fred Kagan, again using Petraeus' claims, took his good news to the Los Angeles Times in August 2005:

Perhaps the best news from the region these days is that the Iraqi army is finally producing units able to fight on their own. According to Lt. Gen. David Petraeus, there are now more than 170,000 "trained and equipped" Iraqi police and military personnel, and more than 105 police and army battalions are "in the fight." Over the next few months, tens of thousands more Iraqi troops will be able to take the field against the insurgency. They should number around 250,000 by next summer.

War supporters and even the military were actually claiming that an early U.S. withdrawal from Iraq was possible due to the great successes Petraeus was reporting. From Jack Kelly in The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, August 2005 (via Lexis):

Ever since Army Lt. Gen. David Petraeus took responsibility for training Iraqi security forces last year, the target date for beginning a major American withdrawal has been June 2006. It is by this date that the United States expects to have 275,000 Iraqi policemen and soldiers trained and equipped and organized into effective units. There are 178,000 on the job now, according to Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Barry Venable.

Petraeus' assessments of Iraq were equally sunny in early 2005. From a March, 2005 Press Release of the Army News Service, entitled "SECRETARY SEES 'SOLID PROGRESS' IN IRAQ":

"The latest polls are quite heartening," said Lt. Gen. David Petraeus, commander, Multi-National Security Transition Command -- Iraq, while updating the secretary on the training of the country's forces. "The Iraqis are by nature an optimistic people."

This is evident in the fact that 8.4 million people risked the potential election-day violence Jan. 30 to vote for the 275-member transitional Iraqi National Assembly.

"The weight of Iraqi security forces is being felt," Petraeus told Harvey. There are more than 145,000 Iraqi soldiers who are trained and individually equipped, with 35,000 more in uniform and awaiting training.

He was optimistic in his assessment of progress. "Iraqi security forces are in the fight, and Iraqi leadership and coalition force back-up are the keys to success." . . .

Comparing Army units to football teams, [Army Secretary Francis] Harvey told Soldiers stationed at Abu Ghraib that he will do his best to provide the best game strategy, coaching and training possible.

"As long as I'm around, I'll ensure that you remain strong and well-equipped," he said.

"I think that we've turned the corner," he said. "It's not over yet, but we've done it before, in France, Italy, Germany and South Korea, we have a long history of spreading peace and freedom around the world."

As has been clear for months, the White House has increasingly incorporated media and communications strategies into the highest levels of the U.S. military command in Iraq. Just last month, the White House moved one of Bush's own aides into the position of Chief Spokesman for the U.S. military in Iraq, and the military's claims about Iraq have increasingly matched White House political aims. The rhetoric from all top military commanders, including Petraeus -- one could say especially him -- reflects White House talking points without deviation.

Especially now that it has become clear that this Grand September Report will occur, putting the comments of Gen. Petraeus into their proper perspective is imperative, as is treating them realistically, with the understanding that he has a history of making almost uniformly optimistic claims about Iraq, even when the reality in Iraq was anything but encouraging.

On every issue in the Hewitt interview -- from "Iran-Al Qaeda cooperation" to accusations against Syria for sending in foreign fighters (with no mention of Saudi Arabia) and the primacy of Al Qaeda as the threat in Iraq -- Petraeus recites highly political propositions in complete harmony with the White House and neoconservatives. Petreaus is a highly political figure, plainly cognizant of the need to sell his war to the American public, and his statements, consequently, are highly political as well. That is not unusual for a military commander.

But to listen to the media references to Gen. Petraeus, one would think that he is the sole figure who resides above the political realm, the sole source for objective and credible accounts of what is happening "on the ground" in Iraq. Like most of what our government and its media has claimed over the last four years with regard to Iraq, that is pure caricature, actually just rank fiction.

UDPATE: I agree with the point made by Andrew Sullivan:

If I were eager to maintain a semblance of military independence from the agenda of extremist, Republican partisans, I wouldn't go on the Hugh Hewitt show, would you? . . . I think such a decision to cater to one party's propaganda outlet renders Petraeus' military independence moot. . . .

But Petraeus is either willing to be used by the Republican propaganda machine or he is part of the Republican propaganda machine. I'm beginning to suspect the latter. The only thing worse than a deeply politicized and partisan war is a deeply politicized and partisan commander. But we now know whose side Petraeus seems to be on: Cheney's. Expect spin, not truth, in September.

Matt Yglesias describes the interview as "The New Jesus Does Radio." Steve Benen adds: "Petraeus' credibility suffered a serious blow this week when he appeared on far-right activist Hugh Hewitt's radio show, and stuck closely to the White House script." Maybe he'll do Rush Limbaugh next, followed by Sean Hannity. That is the standard White House "media" tour. After that, we can hear from Joe Klein and David Broder how we must await His Report because of how Serious and Credible he is.

UPDATE II: Cheery statements from Gen. Petraeus about the Iraq war extend back further still. Here is what he told Charlie Rose on March 1, 2004:

We saw this in terms of Iraqis giving information about bad guys in their neighborhoods, about where weapons caches were, where improvised explosive ambushes were found and so forth. And we saw that increasingly during our time there.

Sometimes I think I found after I came back that people think that Iraqis did not appreciate what our soldiers did. To the contrary, and in fact in Mosul, the Moslauis, the people, are actually going to name a street the "101st Airborne Division Boulevard." It's Frakamia Waha in Arabic, and so I think that was just indicative of that kind of support.

On the other hand, although they would say quickly thank you very much for what you did, we appreciate your liberating us, or sometimes even we appreciate the good deed you just did, they would then have many more good deeds that they wanted us to do. And we jokingly used to say that the reward for a good deed was a request for 10 more good deeds. . . .

But what I would say is that there has been enormous progress just in the seven or eight months that we've actually been recruiting, training, equipping and employing Iraqi security forces. Huge progress. The ones that I recounted about the border police, civil defense corps, police and facility protection security forces, not to mention the new Iraq army, which I think just had its fourth battalion graduate from training the other day.

Increasingly, they're coming online.

That was in March, 2004. In December, 2003, Petraeus told Newsweek the following about the insurgent attacks: "What we've had starting a month ago or so is a sustained spike. Arguably the spike has already gone down."

In early 2004, Petraeus emphatically touted how diverse and non-sectarian were the Iraqi security forces, specifically insisting in Newsweek that "Iraq's security services are not dominated by non-Sunnis. 'Absolutely not . . . The national forces are national forces, typically Shia, Sunni, Kurdds, Yezidi, everything. There is no shortage from all the difficult areas.'" That was a relief, since it sure would have been terrible if the Iraqi sercurity forces turned out to be Shiite death squads fighting sectarian battles.

[As a related bonus, this is what American Forces Press Service reported on May 7, 2003:

The Army general who led the battle of Baghdad said today he is "not particularly concerned about security" in the Iraqi capital. Lt. Gen. William "Scott" Wallace said his troops occasionally come under small-arms fire, deal with "criminal elements" and witness sporadic celebratory fire. "But, in general terms," he added, "the security situation in Baghdad is improving every day."]

Finally, Jim Lehrer reported in 2003 on News Hour an exciting find:

The U.S. military has found a second trailer in Iraq that could have been a mobile bio-weapons lab. the commander of the 101st Airborne Division, Major General David Petraeus, confirmed that today.

I wonder what he's going to say when he goes to Congress in September. The suspense is absolutely unbearable.

UPDATE III: In late May, former Reagan defense official (and current CAP fellow) Lawrence Korb wrote an Op-Ed in The Philadelphia Inquirer detailing some clearly partisan and "misleading" behavior in Petraeus' recent past concerning his claims of "progress" in Iraq.

By Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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