In the Arena

Let’s Talk Petraeus

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Reader Jim had this interesting response to my Iraq Two Step post below:

The question, I think, is whether Petraeus was being “intellectually honest” with himself when he agreed to lend his name and reputation to a Bush strategy. My understanding is that Bush promised Petraeus that he would follow something close the ISG Baker-Hamilton guidlines wrt the Iraqi gov’t, Syria, Iran and other regional powers to complement the military strategy that is only one component of what needs to be done (assuming arguendo that some solution is possible).
IF Petraeus were really willing to take Bush at his word, he can’t be as smart as everyone says.

Here’s a question that has been fiercely–privately–debated in the upper ranks of the military over the past few years: When does a commander have the responsibility to complain publicly about the policies imposed by civilians? There was a fair amount of fury in the ranks immediately below four-star about the failure of generals like Meyers, Pace, Abizaid and Casey to push back against the Rumsfeld reign. Some of it came from people close to Petraeus, who–like John McCain–were pushing for an earlier implementation of a counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq.

My understanding of the prevailing military definition of “duty”–and I’ll check it with some sources over the next few days–is that it was Petraeus’s “duty” to accept the mission, even if he had caveats. It was his “duty” to express those reservations to the Commander in Chief. And it will be his “duty” to give a candid assessment of the situation on the ground when he asked about it under oath, before Congress, in September.

The readers who say that there is no precedent for such honesty are mostly correct. But there isn’t much precedent for a war–or an administration–this stupid, either. The readers who say we’ll still be losing lives in the months to come are entirely correct. That’s why I’ve opposed the surge and favor the disengagement plan offered by the Democrats in the Senate. But the question of what Petraeus will say when the rubber meets the road remains open and, as I said, my operating assumption is that he’ll tell the truth.
I’d be interested in comments, especially from readers with military experience, about what the notion of “duty” actually entails.

Update: Reader Attaturk makes a good point

Isn’t Colonel H.R. McMaster on Petraeus staff? If so, I too would have “some” hope of brutal honesty (that’s “SOME” hope).
He wrote “Dereliction of Duty” which castigated the Vietnam-Era brass for their rosey scenarios

Yes, McMaster is on staff…As is Col. Pete Mansoor, another terrific soldier, who was part of the semi-covert “Colonels Group” that advised Pace last year. Petraeus has picked some first-rate honorable people to serve with him, which is why I have “some” hope, too.