Man of the Year: General David Petraeus

IN MOST YEARS, SEVERAL PEOPLE COULD REASONABLY BE SELECTED FRONTPAGE MAGAZINE’S MAN OF THE YEAR. This year, one candidate distinguished himself beyond all others: General David Howell Petraeus. In commanding the U.S. Surge in Iraq, Petraeus has not merely arrested an explosive and deteriorating security situation but has reversed terrorist initiatives, driving al-Qaeda out of a province it once governed and denying it the ability to reconstitute a Salafist safe haven. No one has more significantly advanced the welfare of the United States and the cause of freedom in 2007 as Gen. Petraeus, and none has been as harassed as a result – not merely harassed unduly but harassed precisely because he aided liberty’s cause in a time when so many seek to benefit politically from its diminution. In his selection, FrontPage Magazine maintains its tradition – expressed by honoring Col. Allen B. West, John O’Neill, and Ignacio Ramos and Jose Compean in years past – of especially praising those who have been maligned, derided, and belittled (or worse) for merely doing their duty.

The 55-year-old soldier-scholar is carrying on his own family tradition. The son of a Dutch sailor, Sixtus Petraeus, and an American mother, his high school classmates remember him as an affable but not especially focused youth whose only expressed career goal was “college.” The fitness fanatic – he can still do 75 push-ups in a minute – graduated in the top five percent of West Point’s Class of 1974. A decade later, he would teach “social sciences” at the venerable military institution. He departed to earn his Ph.D. from Princeton, authoring the 1987 thesis, The American Military and the Lessons of Vietnam: A Study of Military Influence and the Use of Force in the Post-Vietnam Era. While analyzing the lessons the high command should have learned from Vietnam, he wrote,“American involvement in low-intensity conflict is inevitable.” The thesis may have spared the United States many headaches – and flag-draped coffins – if it had been heeded in the heady days of 2003-4.

Petraeus spent years stateside, instilling a code of honor in U.S. soldiers. One of his more recent colleagues, Marine Corps Lt. Seth Moulton – who helped Petraeus train the Iraqi Army – said, “General Petraeus has taught me even when there is an urgent problem to be calm, step back, and not react rashly.” While still in the Unites States, Petraeus suffered a near-fatal casualty, when he was accidentally shot in the chest with an M-16. After being rushed into surgery, future senator Bill Frist saved his life. His steady hand may have been the instrument of healing, but Petraeus seemed to gain his real life force from the camaraderie and dedication of his soldiers. While penning his regrets for missing his 25th high school reunion in 1995, he described Fort Bragg: “Life here is great. I’ve got 2,500 of America’s finest paratroopers in my regiment, and I get a lot of energy from them (although it’s getting tougher to keep up with 18-year-olds!” He would have the opportunity to serve stints in Bosnia and Haiti.

During the fight for Iraq, the then-lieutenant general tasted combat upfront. 101st Air Assault Division through Mosul, where even Newsweek concedes, “Virtually everyone agrees his command there was a textbook case of doing counterinsurgency the right way.” Although it was not what Newsweek had in mind, there Petraeus’ efforts yielded military triumphs. Uday and Qusay Hussein were killed in Mosul during this time, leaving Saddam Hussein without a successor-in-terror. Coalition forces also captured Aso Hawlawi, third in command of Ansar al-Islam, the terrorist group headed by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and later renamed “Al-Qaeda in Iraq.” Not one to allow PC verities to stand in the way of his men’s safety, Petraeus sent his men into mosques to prevent them from being used as arms depots and monitored imams’ teachings. He also reconstructed much of the area. He began irrigation systems running for the first time in 10 years, and the largest asphalt factory in the Middle East operated for the first time since the mid-80s. Foreseeing one obstacle to Sunni-Shi’ite integration, he implemented a more “nuanced” policy of deBaathification. His regnum was imperfect: he oversaw the reopening of the border with Syria, the terrorists’ equivalent of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. And some say he placed too much faith in the wrong people. Nonetheless, the citizens of Mosul honored his tenure by naming a city street after the 101st.

At the beginning of 2007, President Bush asked Petraeus to conform the rest of Iraq into this image, nominating him to implement the new Surge strategy. Fellow military personnel saluted the choice. Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton assessed Petraeus “has a capacity to blow through bureaucracy that not many guys do. He doesn’t understand the nature of a wall; he’ll either go through it or over it or around it.” In part for this reason (and in part because they could do no other) the new Democratic Congress confirmed Lt. Gen. David Petraeus as Commanding General of the Multi-National Force – Iraq on January 26 of this year, by a vote of 81-0.

In his new capacity, the general had to oversee all aspects of Iraq – a task he likened to “building an airplane while you’re flying it.” However, he quickly began to build, training and equipping native Iraqis to fight alongside 21,500 additional U.S. troops. Within the first month alone – with the Surge at far from full strength – murders and executions fell by half. Petraeus then trained native units within the Iraqi National Task Force to deal with counterinsurgency, deploying them to successfully pacify Baghdad after the full complement of U.S. troops arrived this June. (Iraqi Defense Minister Hazim Shaalan noted his desire to visit a distinctively Iraqi justice upon the terrorists: “We will cut off their hands and behead them.”) Revisiting the training he gave to U.S. forces, the now-four-star general increased Iraqi units’ training time, cut loose undependable members, and saw that the Iraqis had the equipment they needed – including body armor. Within a single week, “13,500 Gluck pistols, 850,000 rounds of ammunition, 900 vehicles, 50,000 flak vests and 60,000 Kevlar helmets were delivered.”

Some were not content to wait for the Surge to reach full strength – which only truly began in August. Indeed, William Arkin wrote an article entitled “The Overrated General Petraeus” in The Washington Post in January – twenty days before Arkin denounced the American army as a “mercenary” force gorged on “obscene amenities” – declaiming that Petraeus was “an amenable partner to captain the sinking ship.” On April 19, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said, “this war is lost, and this surge is not accomplishing anything.” On June 13, Reid co-signed a letter with Speaker Nancy Pelosi, informing President Bush, “As many had foreseen, the escalation has failed to produce the intended results.” Reid then declared Petraeus – the commander of all forces in Baghdad, who oversees day-to-day operations in the entire theatre – “isn’t in touch with what’s going on in Baghdad.”

Yet the good news continued. Sunni leadership in Anbar Province turned against al-Qaeda; Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army declared a six-month ceasefire; and Coalition forces began clearing Baghdad of all terrorists. ABC’s Charles Gibson memorably described the scene:

The news is…there is no news. The police told us today that, to their knowledge, there were no major acts of violence. Attacks are down in Baghdad and today no bombings or roadside explosions were reported.

All this took place as Congressional leadership tried to undermine his work. Rep. John Murtha attempted his “slow-bleed” strategy to deprive Iraq of sufficient troops, and numerous resolutions threatened to cut off funding. In the end, Congress could merely compel Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker to address the body in mid-September, announcing the current situation. Many believed this would give the leadership sufficient political cover to push through a defunding resolution.

They did not count on Petraeus’ competence. And the Left railed against him for ruining their plans. Before the leader could testify, his enemies began to poison the well – and exposed themselves as outside the American mainstream. In an ad as polarizing and jarring as the televised Army-McCarthy hearings, took out a full-page ad in the New York Times branding the hero “General Betray Us” – a word play first used by MSNBC “journalist” Keith Olbermann. (The Soros-funded pressure group procured the advertisement at a significant discount.) When Congress voted to condemn weeks later, 79 Democratic Congressmen and 25 Democratic senators – including Hillary Clinton, Christopher Dodd, Harry Reid, John Kerry, Dennis Kucinich, Ted Kennedy, Robert Byrd, Jim McDermott, and James Moran – voted “Nay.” (The remaining Democratic presidential candidates skipped the vote.)

High-profile leftists joined these fringe elements, which now had a controlling interest in their party. The golden-tongued Sen. Dick Durbin, the Senate’s number two Democrat, leapt into the mix, forecasting that Petraeus would try to convince Congress efforts were going well – by using facts! In this Durbin saw evil, instructing, “Even if the figures [are] right, the conclusion is wrong.” Accused of being a White House puppet, Petraeus declared, “I wrote this testimony myself,” affirming it had “not been cleared by, nor shared with, anyone in the Pentagon, the White House, or Congress.” He did not declare irreversible progress – nor has he since – explicitly labeling the gains fragile and subject to change. Regardless, Sen. Hillary Clinton questioned the general’s veracity, saying his testimony required “the willing suspension of disbelief.”

Subsequent conditions on the ground have proven who was suspending disbelief. In October alone, 110,000 refugees returned to Iraq. As in Mosul, the economic progress in liberated Iraq has been notable. One U.S. official said a U.S. program offering Iraqis monetary incentives to reopen the shops they closed due to violence is “working in a weird, unbelievable way.” One shop owner, a 76-year-old baker, said, “The Americans proved that ordinary life was possible here again.” Other frolic in their triumph over the jihadists. “We fought the terrorists and we won,” said a 27-year-old, who has taken up arms against al-Qaeda. “It has taken a long time, but we appreciate the Americans.” In November, forces announced al-Qaeda had been expelled from Anbar Province.

As 2007 draws to a close, General David Petraeus informed the nation of yet greater progress. Earlier this month, he announced gains from the “Anaconda Strategy.” Last October, there were 1,350 terrorist attacks in Anbar Province; one week in the middle of this month, there were 12. In a follow-up session last Saturday, the New York Times reports, Petraeus revealed “violent attacks in the country had fallen by 60 percent since June,” and the number of “high-profile attacks” is down 60 percent since March.

Significantly, General Petraeus reaffirmed the “principal threat” to U.S. troops remains al-Qaeda in Iraq. Al-Qaeda in Iraq – on the advice of Ayman al-Zawahiri, a Jordanian believed to be hiding in Waziristan – intended to expel Western soldiers and use, first Anbar then all of Iraq, as a staging area for regional and worldwide jihad. In addition to serving as the launch pad for terror attacks against Arab governments, this would serve as the new Caliphate, the religio-fascist epicenter of all efforts to impose Shari’a law on the entire world. Thus, al-Qaeda declared Iraq its central front, its Armageddon in the war against the West.

And thanks to General David H. Petraeus, it is here that al-Qaeda is being humiliated. The Times adds that Iraqi Interior Ministry spokesman General Abdul Khalaf confirmed “75 percent of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia’s networks and safe havens had been destroyed,” and “insurgent attacks had declined from 25 a day in February in Baghdad to as few as one during some days in December.” Petraeus observed civilian casualties have been reduced “dramatically”; 600 civilians died this month, compared with 3,000 last December. Deputy Commander Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno said the likelihood of a Sunni-Shi’ite civil war had been “reversed.” In fact, Gen. Petraeus discussed a new, Iraqi “surge”: the Coalition has minted 100,000 new Iraqi soldiers or police – including an increasing number of Sunnis.

The media have continued to ignore news of progress, moving on to covering Iraqi political gridlock and eliding mention of the indefatigable general’s longshot successes. Despite his accomplishments, General Petraeus barely cracked the top one-third of the Time 100. Time also selected the general as its fourth runner-up for its “Man of the Year” award – behind Al Gore, J.K. Rowling, and Red Chinese President Hu Jintao. (This year’s awardee, of course, was Vladimir Putin, neo-fascist president of Russia.) In the story purportedly lauding Petraeus’ accomplishments, penned by leftist Joe Klein, epitomized the phrase “damning with faint praise.” Klein writes, “Petraeus has not failed” – he is responsible for “sketchy progress,” which scribbler Klein attributes to “equal parts luck and skill.”

As General Petraeus proved when asked about the ad, he is unmoved by such criticism. Petraeus has spent a lifetime dispelling caricatures of military men, but moreover, he has spent three decades doing his duty – defending the very rights of those who malign him. He would gladly die for them – and some of them would gladly see him endure such a fate. Scarcely a man would die for a righteous man, but General Petraeus would die even for his enemies. We are thankful he is instead triumphing for them.

Undoubtedly, our “Man of the Year” award will come as little remittance for a man who has already received a “Defense Distinguished Service Medal, two awards of the Distinguished Service Medal, two awards of the Defense Superior Service Medal, four awards of the Legion of Merit, the Bronze Star Medal for valor, the State Department Superior Honor Award, the NATO Meritorious Service Medal, and the Gold Award of the Iraqi Order of the Date Palm.” History will award him greater honors than any of us can bestow. This presidential election will go a long way toward determining if the War on Terror is won or lost, specifically on the Iraq front. However, civilian leadership cannot create battlefield victories, nor diplomatic missions clear the war theater of enemies. Only keen military strategists can do that. If America prevails in the War on Terror, much of the credit will go to General David H. Petraeus – a brilliant but simple man who simply did his duty.

This article originally appeared as the holiday lead story on Monday, December 31, 2007, on FrontPage Magazine.