In the Arena

Petraeus, Yin and Yang

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We have new evaluations of David Petraeus this week, in New York Magazine and the New Yorker. The New Yorker piece is by the great war correspondent and author, Dexter Filkins. The New York piece is by former theater critic Frank Rich. They couldn’t be more different.

Filkins sees the world from the streets up; he is not only a great reporter, but also a fine writer and military analyst. Rich sees the world from 30,000 feet and in only one way: everything is theater. There is, of course, a little bit of the theater critic in all of us who cover politics–internally, at Time Magazine, we call my accounts of presidential speeches and debates “theater criticism.” But theater criticism without context, without substantial knowledge of the issues at stake, is entertainment, not journalism. And that is what Rich, who at times is capable of powerful political insights, is guilty of here.

Filkins covered Petraeus, as I did; and was impressed by him, as I was (and am). His evaluation of the general’s worth is very similar to mine: Petraeus was a creative force who helped teach the U.S. Army the proper way to fight the sort of guerrilla insurgencies that we have confronted over the past 10 years. He did a fine job in Iraq, tamping down the chaos, saving Iraqi and American lives in the process–and enabling us to leave the terrible mess that we had made with a certain rough order restored. He was less successful–and downright wrong, at times–in Afghanistan…although his counterinsurgency strategy has proved successful, for the moment, in the part of Afghanistan that I visited repeatedly, Kandahar Province. Schools are open there now that were closed by the Taliban. A degree of peace and security have been restored.

Filkins doesn’t mention this, but I believe the general’s finest, most lasting achievement was his renovation of Army training to emphasize moral decision-making, under pressure with incomplete information–the essence of counterinsurgency–as well as creativity and entrepreneurialism. The young officers I saw providing governance in towns, especially in Kandahar Province, are coming home with a skill set that will make them excellent public servants and, I hope, politicians.

Did Petraeus have faults? Well, of course. And pride was obviously one of them. He also violated a sacred code of ethics. If you are leading troops into battle, you must be exemplary–and fraternizing with an officer of lower rank raises questions of favoritism and moral relativism that can’t be tolerated.

But judging Petraeus by his pride and peccadillos–his willingness to socialize with sordid sycophants in Tampa–without also acknowledging the substance of his record is like judging Bill Clinton on Monica Lewinsky and Marc Rich alone. Yes, we do go overboard venerating heroes in this country. It’s inevitable in this media atmosphere. But we also go overboard when it comes to tearing them down. David Petraeus saved lives and restored order in Iraq. He added great substance to military theory and vastly improved military training. I suspect that he knows a bit more about human fallibility now than he did a year ago, and such knowledge will prove useful if he decides to serve his nation again in some capacity, as I hope he does.

43 comments
DrinkerOfTheRye
DrinkerOfTheRye

Move-on got it right when they labelled him Gen Betrayious, likewise SEN Clinton was right insinuating that he was a liar. Why herald him that shared Bill Clinton's weakness whiteout having any of his strengths?

chupkar
chupkar

AS LONG AS WE ARE GETTING ATTENTION. I'd like Morning Must Reads back please.

geniesmithdreams
geniesmithdreams

I would suggest that the author of this love letter to David Petraeus do a little investigating by asking lower ranking officers who have actually been in the fighting instead of watching it from afar what they think of the general and his COIN strategy.

ironyman2
ironyman2

Joe, David Petraeus soiled himself. During the worst recession of most of our lifetimes, he lived lavishly off public funds. He broke a trust with the people of this country, making himself look silly and old with his e-mail capers and his much younger girlfriend.

The man doesn't even have the guts to come forth and speak out. He has surrogates such as you doing it for him. But maybe that's the advice he's received from his high-priced attorney and expensive PR counsel, those probably paid for by the taxpayers too.

destor23
destor23

Joe, I think you owe Frank Rich an apology.  For one thing, spending the majority of one's career covering theatre, where some of the most human (and political transcendent) moments happen, does in fact qualify you write about a high ranking military officer.  Much of what we civilians understand about such people comes from the theatre.  I'm thinking Shakespeare, for sure.

Frank Rich should also not be summed up as a "former theatre critic."  The man is a writer and a thinker who expressed much of that in the form of theatre criticism.  But he is much more than that and deserves more respectful treatment by you.  Also, I'd take issue with your own form of "theatre criticism" of political speeches and campaign events.  It might be a funny joke in the office, but it's not theatre criticism, it's you writing about the aesthetic of politics.  It's a related, but distinct, field.

I like Dexter Filkins.  The Forever War is a great book.  His New Yorker article is fair and smartly critical.  Rich's take is legitimate as well, though.  One is not right and the other wrong.  I think you have to examine your own feelings about Petraeus.  You seem to forget that the Petraeus surge, which he agitated for behind the scenes, was not popular with the American public.  Under his influence, the U.S. escalated a war that its people wanted finished.  You never criticized him for that undemocratic action and, as I recall, was aghast that Moveon dared to criticize him by implying he was dishonest in his assessment of the need for the surge.  Moveon made a legitimate criticism, which Time should have taken more seriously. 

Perhaps there's something theatrical to your relationship with Petraeus.  It reads like something of a love story.

SvenErlandson
SvenErlandson

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ifthethunderdontgetya
ifthethunderdontgetya

=>But judging Petraeus by his pride and peccadillos–his willingness tosocialize with sordid sycophants in Tampa–without also acknowledging thesubstance of his record is like judging Bill Clinton on Monica Lewinsky and Marc Rich alone.<=

After all, there's also deregulating the banks and turning the Democratic party into GOP Lite, just as the GOP became insane.

I'll take Frank Rich over anything you have to write, Joke Line.

~

TyPollard
TyPollard

Getting cozy with the rich and powerful is a danger that is not resisted enough in journalism.

deconstructiva
deconstructiva

Actually, there's not much criticism here of WHY Rich is supposed to be guilty of kabuki instead of insight. Good theater / film criticism details why a performance is good or bad, not just "I like it / not", read any Roger Ebert review. Agree or not with RE, but he lays his entire analysis on the table each time for all to see.

jmac
jmac

"Petraus worked miracles in Afghanistan."  ?  If you're idea of a miracle is dropping and wasting millions that statement might be true as Petraus stated "money is ammunition."  Obama caved to Petraus when he should have been listening to Biden, which he eventually did.   

S_Deemer
S_Deemer

@Joe Klein: "They couldn’t be more different."

You've got that right. Filkins risked his butt (sometimes recklessly) in Iraq, while Frank Rich was a theater critic in New York City. I'll take Filkins' assessment any day. And Tom Ricks over both of them, which reminds me that I need to read The Generals.

MrObvious
MrObvious

Bribing insurgents with gobs of money works fine until we're not there to bribe them anymore. So now they're back at fighting again.

reflectionephemeral
reflectionephemeral

<i>internally, at Time Magazine, we call my accounts of presidential speeches and debates “theater criticism.” But theater criticism without context, without substantial knowledge of the issues at stake, is entertainment, not journalism.</i>

Who's to know whether Time is mostly entertainment? Some say it is, some say it isn't. 

I have neither the time nor the publishing background to figure out who's right. 

ironyman2
ironyman2

@geniesmithdreams 

If Petraeus dares to run for public office, his war record will surface and be used against him by an opponent. The affair will fade, but the public man Petraeus - extravagant use of taxpayer funds, failures as a general, stupidity with email - will continue to develop and to plague him. As for any sex affair, Bill Clinton's name always comes up when media discover a new, sordid scandal. Now Petraeus's "good" name will be high on that list. Like Clinton, popular with some segments while he lives, Petraeus will fade into history because his legacy will be questionable and unspectacular.

chupkar
chupkar

WOW! Did you used to be a USED CAR SALESMAN! I bet you were. And you were PROBABLY FANTASTIC at Christmas Parties!

ironyman2
ironyman2

@JayAckroyd 

Joe writes P-4 did a "fine job in Iraq."

"Fine job" is what you say to someone who is at best mediocre but is your boss's nephew.

ironyman2
ironyman2

@TyPollard 

I would refrain from calling what these people do journalism. They cultivate sources and would not allow accurate reporting and facts stand in the way of a good, solid working relationship with a media star they might one day need to quote.

TyPollard
TyPollard

@reflectionephemeral 

"I have neither the time nor the publishing background to figure out who's right."

Thanks for repurposing my favorite Joe Klein quote of all time.

bobell
bobell

With all respect, I 'm not sure it matters.  Just keep your grain of salt handy.

It's pretty clear that Joe Klein wants to be taken seriously, and most of the regulars do him the favor of honoring his wishes, including harsh cricicism when we think he has it coming. This particular blog post is a one-hand-other-hand sort of thing, intended as such by Joe, I'm sure. I don't see any false equivalances here, just a balanced take on someone with plenty of virtuies and plenty of vices to offset them.  Petraeus is starting to remind me of U.S. Grant, of all people, but I doubt he'll ever get elected president -- and I suspect he doesn't like cigars.

Also, the Denizens of the Swamp are starting to stir. Let's hope they keep it up.

geniesmithdreams
geniesmithdreams

@ironyman2 @geniesmithdreams I agree.  I don't think he will ever attempt a run for office now, but the sad thing is that he will probably get a teaching gig somewhere, and spread his liberal ideas to our young people.

ironyman2
ironyman2

@JayAckroyd @ironyman2 

Yeah, great life if you're a tech billionaire, Oprah or ... David Petraeus. The affair is seedy and shows his penchant for deceit, but the bilking taxpayers is conduct unbecoming.

JayAckroyd
JayAckroyd

@TyPollard Filkins: echoes White.

"One more factor helped the surge: the Sunni and Shiite gunmen had made their neighborhoods confessionally pure; Baghdad was no longer the mixed city it had been for centuries. The civil war was a bloodbath, but it had the unintended effect of making it easier for the respective groups to protect themselves."

reflectionephemeral
reflectionephemeral

@kbanginmotown @reflectionephemeral Well, glad I wasn't just amusing myself with that comment.

Like I said, I was being a little obnoxious. And Joe Klein can be a very good writer, reporter, and pundit. It's unfair to act like that comment epitomizes his career. It's not like we're talking about Hugh Hewitt or Tom Friedman or anything.

But that "hey, who knows what truth is, I just do the appearance of balance between the only two sides there are, Pete Hoekstra's and Evan Bayh's" attitude does reflect a dangerous tic of Klein's approach. As Jay Ackroyd points out above, there are arguments out there that Petraeus didnt magically turn everything around in Iraq; there, I genuinely don't know which side has it right, but Klein should at least grapple with the argument before rejecting it.

I think I was set off by Klein's use of the term "theater criticism". I'm pretty sure I've complained here in comments about his theater criticism in lieu of policy. (I'd search for it, but they periodically delete every comment ever made. I'm mostly bummed about that because Karen Tumulty rickrolling Stuart Zechman (really!) during the '08 primaries was one of the greatest things I've ever seen on the Internet, and now that bit of our cultural patrimony is lost). Good reporting and punditry means rejecting the current, easily parroted narrative. Klein's substanceless rejection of Rich's argument (when he may actually be right, I really don't know) reflects the worst of his tendencies.

reflectionephemeral
reflectionephemeral

@bobell Well I was being a little obnoxious, but not wildly so. 

A small example-- here's what Klein wrote in the run-up to the DNC: ""In point of fact, "Simpson-Bowles" has become a symbol, or SimBowl, rather than an actual plan, political shorthand for the process of long-term deficit reduction. ... should the President make a big SimBowlic statement in this campaign, perhaps in his convention speech? Absolutely. It’s called leadership." 

But he'd already established in that column that Obama was completely open to compromise on the issue of cuts, and that the GOP was unwilling to budge. And that Simpson-Bowles wasn't a perfect plan; and that stimulus, not cuts, has to be the near-term priority for the weak economy. 

That proritization of "SimBowlism" over substance is well, politics as theater criticism. It's bad for America. It obscures the issues at hand, and obscures the behavior of the two parties. 

lordofthefly
lordofthefly

@geniesmithdreams @ironyman2 

Petraeus plays it safe for an Army 4-star, but most people guess his po9litics as Republican. If I were parent to a daughter of any university that might hire him, I be be concerned abouit what he might ask her to spread. (Excuse the bluntness, but I had zero respect for this dude long before his creepy affair and email episode.)

reflectionephemeral
reflectionephemeral

@Ivy_B Hi Ivy! Sorry to be so slow to respond-- I was travelling to the less exotic, but extremely beautiful locale of western South Dakota. Now that we're both back to real life, see you around here soon!

Ivy_B
Ivy_B

@reflectionephemeral Thanks Elvis. I'm on my way back from my annual visit to Cape Town and 7 or so hours ahead, which means discussion is hard to participate in. I'm in the airport at Frankfurt and was immediately amused by your famous quote repurposing as well as interested in the rest of your comments and the discussion. Back to real time and exhaustion soon - cheers!