Why the law doesn't apply to people like David Petraeus

Newly released documents show how his powerful allies went to bat for him — by claiming Iraq was a success

Published June 12, 2015 11:58AM (EDT)

David H. Petraeus              (AP/Reed Saxon)
David H. Petraeus (AP/Reed Saxon)

Not only does the national security elite believe members of their club should face different standards of justice, but they also believe our recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been successes.

That's the lesson one gets from reading the letters written to Judge David Kessler in support of a lenient sentence for David Petraeus after his conviction for leaking classified information -- two years of probation as opposed to the three years of prison time faced by others who committed the same acts as Petraeus. The letters were recently unsealed in response to a lawsuit by a group of media outlets.

The letters, in general, make claims that may well be true: that General Petraeus is the best general of his generation, he's an inspiring leader, he's tireless. But then a good number of the letters leap from claims about Petraeus' personal attributes to inflated claims about Petraeus' success in Iraq and Afghanistan. Consider: In Iraq, the US has returned to war against ISIL, a successor to the same foe, Al Qaeda in Iraq, that Petraeus purportedly defeated in the surge. In Afghanistan, the U.S. remains mired, even after another surge pushed by Petraeus and his backers in 2009, and overseen by Petraeus for a year before he moved to CIA in 2011.

Yet one after another person wrote Judge Kessler arguing that Petraeus should be spared prison time because of the success he had in fighting both those wars.

A number of these people, not surprisingly, had a role in formulating the policy Petraeus implemented, such as members of the Bush White House. On April 3, even as ISIL was preparing to overrun the key Iraqi city of Ramadi, former National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley claimed, "General Petraeus and the remarkable men and women that he led ... defeated Al Qaeda in Iraq." Hadley deemed this act, which has already been utterly reversed, "an accomplishment of historic proportions." Hadley's former colleague, Deputy National Security Advisor Meghan O'Sullivan, similarly treated the gains of the surge as permanent. "While no one man or woman can account for the success or failure of a mission as complicated and fraught as that of Iraq, General Petraeus' involvement was absolutely critical in reversing the tragic trajectories in Iraq from 2007 - 2008."

Retired Colonel John Nagl -- with Petraeus one of the people who pushed a new counterinsurgency doctrine used in Iraq and Afghanistan -- described Petraeus' training of the Iraqi Army, which has repeatedly fled in advance of ISIL, "a Herculean mission ... and he did it enormously well." Nagl also called Petraeus' effort to pay Sunni tribes to stop supporting al Qaeda (some of which have returned to supporting ISIL as it advances) "a miracle, and it would not have happened without him."

Brookings pundit Michael O'Hanlon included a Politico piece he wrote, "David Petraeus, national hero," with his letter. In it, O'Hanlon called the surge "arguably the greatest military comeback in American history" -- though O'Hanlon at least recognized the fleeting nature of that "greatest comeback ever" when he claimed that comeback was squandered. Nevertheless, O'Hanlon continued with the superlatives. "What he did in Iraq was probably the greatest complex accomplishment by any American general since Washington in the Revolutionary War."

Senator Dianne Feinstein focused particular attention on Petraeus assumption of leadership of coalition forces in Afghanistan. "He was the only one in the U.S. military," Feinstein claimed, "who could take on the assignment under the circumstances and be successful," which seems to suggest she believes it was successful.

Retired General (and key surge architect) John Keane gave Petraeus credit for turning around two failing wars. "He was nothing short of remarkable as he used his years of command experience and personal attributes to turn around two wars that were failing."

The people who planned or oversaw the failed policies David Petraeus implemented think he did a damn good job of it, and they'll hail it as a success. Never mind the incentives they have to claim Petraeus -- implementing their policies -- was a great success.

Admittedly, a number of the letters that hail Petraeus' success spoke more moderately. Retired Colonel Joseph Collins admitted Petraeus' efforts allowed the US to withdraw gracefully. "Twice, when our Armed Forced faltered on the field and national policy hung in the balance, two presidents -- one Republican, one Democrat -- called on Dave to lead the Surge forces that restored momentum in two theaters and established the conditions necessary for a safe and secure American withdrawal."

Harvard professor Graham Allison claimed only that Petraeus staved off defeat. "He took a losing hand in Iraq, imagined a surge (in which ideas were even more important than the additional troops), and led the US to at least a draw, rather than defeat."

Others used euphemisms. Petraeus' former senior political Advisor, Michael Gfoeller, claimed that the General saved our honor. "Thanks to [Petraeus'] brilliance, bravery, and sheer dedication, he was able to save the honor of the United States in Iraq."

It's unclear what criteria Gfoeller used to claim that the US still has honor after invading Iraq based on lies.

Two people who describe Petraeus' service in Iraq and Afghanistan show more caution in their claims. One is Ryan Crocker, who served as Ambassador to Iraq during the surge. He admits, "I have never faced anything tougher than the mission in Iraq." Crocker did not claim victory.

And only Retired Colonel John Martin points to the problem with all the other claims of Petraeus' success, at least in Iraq. "The continuing conflict in Iraq shows that his work was not perfect."


We're back at war with the successor of the group that Petraeus' boosters claim he vanquished. That suggests he didn't vanquish them but instead bought off their allies for a temporary respite. Which ought to raise questions about both the objectivity and the judgment of those insisting Petraeus get special treatment because he vanquished those enemies.

I'm sure some of the  celebrations of Petraeus career have more merit. Retired Admiral (and University of Texas Chancellor) Bill McRaven, spoke of his dedication to those who serve. "I never saw Dave Petraeus make a decision that wasn't in the best interests of the soldiers, sailors, airman [sic], and Marines that he led or in the strategic interests of the United States. ... I guarantee you that his leadership saved the lives of thousands of soldiers; lives that would have been lost if different tactical, operational and strategic decisions had been made by a different man."

That rings true. And saving the lives of those who serve is a laudable goal. But let's not turn it into the rationale for a two-tiered system of justice privileging Petraeus over others who have served.

By Marcy Wheeler

Marcy Wheeler writes at EmptyWheel.net and is the author of "Anatomy of Deceit."

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Afghanistan David Petraeus Iraq Isis