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Perry on Politics: Forgiving Petraeus

Published by Tim McNulty on .

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By James M. Perry

Roger Ailes, the combative boss of Fox News, had a brilliant idea in the spring of 2011, according to the Washington Post's Bob Woodward -- urge General David Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, to give some serious thought to running for President of the United States.

Nothing came of it, of course, and the general's reputation was shattered with the revelation that he had had an affair with his biographer, Paula Broadwell.

But it wasn't such a bad idea -- Petraeus might have been the army's smartest, most successful general since Matthew Ridgway way back in the Korean War. Ridgway was a truly great general, turning a defeated army around and making them soldiers again. Fighting with him was the Marine general, O.P. Smith, who led the First Marine Division to safety, though surrounded by swarms of Chinese. They emerged from their ordeal with all their dead and wounded and singing the Marine hymn.

Americans have always had a weakness for electing generals, starting with George Washington himself. There have been 12 of them all together -- Washington, Andrew Jackson, William Henry Harrison, Zachary Taylor, Franklin Pierce, Andrew Johnson, Ulysses S. Grant, Rutherford B. Hayes, James Garfield, Chester Arthur, Benjamin Harrison, and Dwight Eisenhower.

Other generals have tried. General Alexander Haig had been in charge of updating Douglas MacArthur's war haigmaps during the Second World War. He was secretary of state when he famously proclaimed, "I'm in control here," after President Reagan was shot by John Hinckley Jr.in March of 1981 (at right, with national security advisor Richard Allen). Haig had seen hard fighting in Korea and Vietnam and had served for five years as NATO's supreme commander. He withdrew from the race in 1988 four days before the New Hampshire primary.

General Wesley Clark, valedictorian of his West Point class and a Rhodes scholar, sought the Democratic Party's nomination in 2004. Clark was shot four times by a Viet Cong soldier in Vietnam, pulled himself together and led a counter-attack that routed the enemy. He commanded allied forces in Kosovo from 1997 to 2000. He withdrew from the race in February and threw his support to John Kerry.

One of the reasons why we haven't elected a general since Dwight Eisenhower may be because we haven't had many successful generals like Ridgway and O.P. Smith. Thomas E. Ricks, in his book, The Generals, takes a somewhat dyspeptic view of the modern-day general, arguing that one of the problems is that they don't understand guerrilla warfare and that nobody ever fires the incompetents. Ricks's hero is General George C. Marshall, the top American general in World War 2. Marshall had no hesitation in firing a whole string of generals who were too old and too ignorant to lead troops in the biggest war the U.S. had ever fought. It was Marshall who jumped Eisenhower over scores of higher ranking officers to lead the allied invasion of Europe.

Ricks doesn't exactly say so but he obviously believes some of the army's modern-day generals should have been fired. He singles out two of them for special condemnation -- Tommy Franks and Ricardo Sanchez, both of whom served in Iraq. Franks was a fool, Ricks says, and Sanchez was in way over his head.

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The lone exception was Petraeus. Dexter Filkins, a brilliant war correspondent who writes now for the New Yorker, says that by almost every measure "the American soldiers and marines who went into Iraq and Afghanistan, were grossly unprepared for their mission, and the officers who led them were often negligent." Somebody should have been fired; no one was. Petraeus was the only general who seemed to know how to deal with Iraq. He and the 101st Airborne Division took up positions in and around the northern city of Mosul, so far from the heart of Iraq nobody paid much attention to him. It was there he began to develop his counter-insurgecy strategy. Basically, Filkins says, instead of concentrating on the enemy you want to kill, his troops concentrated on the civilians you want to protect. It worked. Throughout much of 2003, while Iraq imploded, Mosul stayed relatively calm.

"The truth is," Filkins says, "Petraeus really was exceptional."

Generals often develop inflated egos. MacArthur's ego was legendary. Petraeus may have fallen into the same trap. He once arrived at a party preceded by 28 motorcycles. And, surely, being involved in an affair with his biographer, showed a lamentable lack of good sense. And, yet, he is the best we have. It's time to forgive him and put him back to work. The army needs him.

James M. Perry, a prominent veteran political reporter, is contributing regular observations for post-gazette.com. Mr. Perry was the chief political correspondent of The Wall Street Journal until his retirement. Prior to that, he covered national politics for the Dow Jones weekly, The National Observer.

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