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A surprising surge of optimism has just bubbled up from America’s famously circumspect and straight-talking top military man in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus. Next came a not-surprising rush to rebuke by Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid.
Because we all know where this is going — namely, that September report from Petraeus on whether the so-called troop surge is working — it is important to first note that the Iraq War has produced a historic shift: The unprecedented Generalization of the Iraq War, a shift historians may judge as one of the few good outcomes of this badly bungled mission that could end with America losing the war it won.
By “generalization,” we are not talking about glib statements from spokesmen, pols or pundits. (Although there has been no shortage of those in this war that began with a quick victory but evolved into an un-won peace that has dragged on longer than World War II.) The “generalization” we are focusing on is about America’s military generals and the unprecedented way they have emerged to tell us tough truths we needed to hear. Truths about miscalculations, misperceptions, deceptions and blunders that civilian policymakers committed and were hell-bent to hide.
We’ve heard them from retired generals who apparently felt free to speak their minds in ways we should have heard — but never did — during the Vietnam War. And most impressively, we’ve also heard tough truths from active-duty generals who understood that in a democracy truth is a core component of patriotic service. We did not always recognize instantly the value of the truths they told.
In 2003, when Army Gen. Erik Shinseki said that several hundred thousand troops would be needed in postwar Iraq, then-Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz famously scoffed that the general was “wildly off the mark.” The Pentagon was saying just 100,000 could do it, and that was what President Bush wanted to hear and so did we all. So we just shrugged when then-Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld’s team of acolytes arrogantly pushed back until Shinseki retired.
Now this: Petraeus last week told USA Today that he was seeing “astonishing signs of normalcy” in Baghdad. “I’m talking about professional soccer leagues with real grass field stadiums, several amusement parks — big ones, markets that are very vibrant.” The same day, the new post-Rummy/post-Wolfie Defense Department was telling Congress, in a quarterly report, that the surge of some 50,000 more U.S. troops had not reduced the violence in Iraq, as Bush and others had said it would. The Pentagon said the increased troops in the capital city had merely pushed those causing violence into other areas of Iraq.
In the wake of Petraeus’ interview and the Pentagon’s comment, came the Senate’s top Democrat, Harry Reid of Nevada. In recent weeks, he has been a font of under-informed overstatements, as when he said weeks earlier that the war was lost and the surge cold not work — without giving it a chance. This time he held himself a bit more in check, telling reporters that Petraeus “isn’t in touch with what’s going on in Baghdad.” Reid said he hoped Petraeus would be “a little more candid” in his September report on the surge. In that, the Democratic leader got it just about right.
And that gets us to the bottom line. Petraeus, according to those who have known him well, has been a forthcoming and straight-talking general. He is a Princeton Ph.D. who shows that “military intelligence” need not be a contradiction in terms. He knows his duty to his country and its citizens is more than telling his desperate and dispirited commander in chief only the good news he wants to hear.
The general also knows it will be very wrong if his September report is just an on-the-one-hand/on-the-other-hand assessment that bends over backward to find ways of saying good things about the surge — because he designed it and implemented it.
What the general doesn’t need are politicians who pre-judge. What we need are generals who possess the military intelligence and integrity to do the same — even when they are reporting on their own best efforts. We need a straight-talker, not a cheerleader.
Those who know Petraeus best believe he can be our best hope for providing the tough truth we need in this time of national disenchantment over the war we thought we’d won four years ago.
(Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail him at martin.schram(at)gmail.com.)