When it came out that CIA Director David Petraeus had an affair with his hagiographer, I got punked. “It seems so obvious in retrospect. How could you @attackerman?” tweeted @bitteranagram, complete with a link to a florid piece I wrote for this blog when Petraeus retired from the Army last year. (“The gold standard for wartime command” is one of the harsher judgments in the piece.) I was so blind to Petraeus, and my role in the mythmaking that surrounded his career, that I initially missed @bitteranagram’s joke.
But it’s a good burn. Like many in the press, nearly every national politician, and lots of members of Petraeus’ brain trust over the years, I played a role in the creation of the legend around David Petraeus. Yes, Paula Broadwell wrote the ultimate Petraeus hagiography, the now-unfortunately titled All In. But she was hardly alone. (Except maybe for the sleeping-with-Petraeus part.) The biggest irony surrounding Petraeus’ unexpected downfall is that he became a casualty of the very publicity machine he cultivated to portray him as superhuman. I have some insight into how that machine worked.
The first time I met Petraeus, he was in what I thought of as a backwater: the Combined Armed Center at Fort Leavenworth. It’s one of the Army’s in-house academic institutions, and it’s in Kansas, far from the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2005, Petraeus ran the place, and accepted an interview request about his tenure training the Iraqi military, which didn’t go well. Petraeus didn’t speak for the record in that interview, but over the course of an hour, he impressed me greatly with his intelligence and his willingness to entertain a lot of questions that boiled down to isn’t Iraq an irredeemable shitshow. Back then, most generals would dismiss that line of inquiry out of hand, and that would be the end of the interview.
One of Petraeus’ aides underscored a line that several other members of the Petraeus brain trust would reiterate for years: “He’s an academic at heart,” as Pete Mansoor, a retired Army colonel who served as Petraeus’ executive officer during the Iraq surge, puts it. There was a purpose to that line: it implied Petraeus wasn’t particularly ambitious, suggesting he was content at Fort Leavenworth and wasn’t angling for a bigger job. I bought into it, especially after I found Petraeus to be the rare general who didn’t mind responding to the occasional follow-up request.
So when Petraeus got command of the Iraq war in 2007, I blogged that it was all a tragic shame that President Bush would use Petraeus, “the wisest general in the U.S. Army,” as a “human shield” for the irredeemability of the war. And whatever anyone thought about the war, they should “believe the hype” about Petraeus.
I wasn’t alone in this. Petraeus recognized that the spirited back-and-forth journalists like could be a powerful weapon in his arsenal. “His ability to talk to a reporter for 45 minutes, to flow on the record, to background or off-the-record and back, and to say meaningful things and not get outside the lane too much — it was the best I’ve ever seen,” Mansoor reflects. It paid dividends. On the strength of a single tour running the 101st Airborne in Mosul, Newsweek put the relatively unknown general on its cover in 2004 under the headline CAN THIS MAN SAVE IRAQ? (It’s the first of three cover stories the magazine wrote about him.) Petraeus’ embrace of counterinsurgency, with its self-congratulatory stylings as an enlightened form of warfare that deemphasized killing, earned him plaudits as an “intellectual,” unlike those “old-fashioned, gung-ho, blood-and-guts sort of commander[s],” as Time’s Joe Klein wrote in 2007. This media narrative took hold despite the bloody, close-encounter street fights that characterized Baghdad during the surge.