By Fareed Zakaria
I’m not going to second-guess General Petraeus’ decision to resign, nor President’s Obama’s decision to accept his resignation. But it’s a real loss for the administration and the country. Petraeus was a rare general in that he was genuinely reflective – able to think broadly and strategically – while also able to implement big ideas well.
But perhaps most important, Petraeus was able to defy conventional wisdom – even the conventional wisdom of his superiors. Remember, the military is a very hierarchical organization, and there are many incentives to conform and to reaffirm existing orthodoxy. A premium is placed on saluting and executing orders well.
Petraeus was in Iraq right after the invasion, where he was a two star general in charge of a large part of northern Iraq. Headquartered in Mosul, he began to believe that the way we were handling the occupation was wrong, and he started to try to implement a different policy and speak out quietly within the top brass about the possibility of a different approach.
This shift was not received all that warmly in some quarters, and then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in particular seems to have disagreed with this new approach, notably failing to promote Petraeus. In fact, he sent him off to head the U.S. Army Combined Arms Center at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.
While there, Petraeus used this platform to formulate a new doctrine of counterinsurgency. I am not as blown away by this doctrine as many people have been. It has some advantages, especially over the crazy way the occupation was handled initially in Iraq. However, it is also a very expensive, open ended commitment to nation building that is extremely difficult for any outside force to sustain. Even when adequately resourced, this approach can still have the problem of feeling like an imperialist mission.
The Iraqi counter insurgency strategy largely succeeded where the Afghanistan one didn’t, so it’s not a silver bullet. In Iraq, you have Sunni tribes who decided that they were going to make their peace with the government in Baghdad, a process that Petraeus greatly facilitated. Without that political dynamic, counterinsurgency has not worked in Afghanistan. Still, Petraeus deserves enormous credit for creative thought and action. He was willing to think outside the box and develop his ideas before implementing them.
The great problem of government is the difficulty of breaking free of the bureaucratic mindset, something Petraeus was able to do in a dramatic way, while working in the largest bureaucracy in the world, namely the U.S. Pentagon.
His tenure at the CIA was too short for us to be sure whether he was able to bring some of those extraordinary qualities to bear on the agency, although one would imagine he would be able to succeed there as he has succeeded everywhere else in his life.
But we’ll never know – he will very likely enter the private sector, give speeches, engage in consultancy work and make millions of dollars. Meanwhile, the United States will be deprived of an extraordinary public servant. I’m not sure that the national interest is being served by this, but that’s the way the system works.