06.24.10

The Real Secret to Petraeus' Success

America’s favorite general emerged from Iraq a hero by lowering expectations. Matthew Yglesias on why that tack just might work in Afghanistan.

The decision to replace General Stanley McChrystal as commander in Afghanistan with General David Petraeus was nothing short of a political masterstroke by the Obama administration. Borrowing an idea from, ironically enough, Bill Kristol, Obama managed to obtain the benefits of sacking the runaway general without opening himself up to the slightest hint of criticism that he’s jeopardizing the war effort. More important than the politics, however, is the substance—the state of NATO’s military campaign in Afghanistan is not good—and there’s a case to be made that Petraeus really is just the man for the job. If, that is, he’s able to look realistically at the events that made him famous in the first place.

If “success” in Iraq is judged as meaning something so literal as “achieve one’s goals,” then the surge, like the war, failed. Indeed, Petraeus failed.

Petraeus’ tenure in Iraq, and particularly the “surge” undertaken in 2007, has become a celebrated military success. But while there certainly were impressive operational achievements, the win really ought to be understood as largely a postmodern victory, a triumph of spin, narrative formation, and political psychology that “succeeded” largely in extricating the country from a toxic political deadlock.

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Consider that the Bush administration’s National Strategy for Victory in Iraq outlined an aim of an Iraq that “is peaceful, united, stable, and secure; well integrated into the international community, and a full partner in the global war on terrorism.” To state the obvious, none of that has happened. Iraq remains a divided and insecure state that doesn’t contribute in any meaningful way to whatever the global war on terrorism was supposed to be. Nor does Iraq in any way appear to have achieved Bush’s medium term goal of putting a “fully constitutional government in place.” No time ever came when Bush redefined the nation’s war aims. So if “success” is judged as meaning something so literal as “achieve one’s goals” then the surge, like the war, failed. Indeed, Petraeus failed.

And for a long time, that’s how I saw it, sitting in Washington vaguely furious that the man was winning accolades for a “victory” that was largely a matter of resetting expectations.

In retrospect, that was churlish. Managing expectations is hugely important and Petraeus did the nation a great service by redefining a win in Iraq as something more like “improve the situation in some respects and recognize that the long-term course of things is out of our hands.” Before the surge, after all, the country had been caught in a senseless loop whereby war opponents saw deteriorating conditions as a reason to leave but proponents cited them as a reason to stay and a combination of momentum and national and professional pride ensured that the doves would perennially lose the argument. By combining modest real gains in the situation on the ground in Iraq with an aggressive reframing of the politics of the mission at home, Petraeus set the stage for the orderly withdrawal of American forces that the country needed.

Afghanistan and Iraq are different in many ways, but the “good war” could also benefit from some reframing. In particular, we’re currently suffering from a bad case of unrealistic expectations. The United States went into Afghanistan with a pretty clear goal of getting the bad guys responsible for 9/11. We succeeded to some extent, but failed to nab the key leaders, at which point Bush decided he wanted to invade Iraq. He didn’t, however, either declare victory in Afghanistan or admit failure. Instead, he shorted resources for the mission even while allowing it to be reframed in terms of grandiose aspirations to create a functioning, democratic Afghan central government.

Perhaps at some point this would have been achievable, but years of drift have made the goal ever more distant. What’s more, the government of Afghanistan centered around Hamid Karzai simply hasn’t proven itself to be especially capable or well-intentioned. Consequently, the surge of forces McChrystal’s been overseeing appeared to be going nowhere fast—killing Taliban operatives and flushing money around the country even while the legitimacy and credibility of the Afghan government continued to erode. Utterly committed to the goal of winning the war, McChrystal has been coming into conflict with other members of the Obama administration over his willingness to pour an essentially limitless quantity of money and manpower down the drain in an effort to crush the Taliban.

Strategically, this just doesn't make sense. Despite the military's best efforts to repackage old information about lithium reserves as a newfound trove of wealth, Afghanistan is a poor, distant, landlocked country containing essentially nothing of value. It would be much more reasonable to restrain our goals, shy away from efforts to conquer hostile territory, and simply try to provide some help to friendly Afghans while scaling our commitment of resources down to a more sustainable level. The politics, however, are bound to be treacherous, especially for a Democrat with reason to fear opportunistic attacks from the warmongering right.

Petraeus could be just the man to do for Obama what he did for Bush: help reframe the problem and walk away from unrealistic goals while projecting determination and making things better in some small concrete ways. But to pull it off, he’ll have to be the kind of person who’s insightful enough not to believe his own hype.

Matthew Yglesias is a Fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund. He is the author of Heads in the Sand: How the Republicans Screw Up Foreign Policy and Foreign Policy Screws Up the Democrats.