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Stop Listening to David Petraeus

Stop Listening to David Petraeus

The self-promoting ex-general continues to rewrite history, suggesting that Israel deploy an Iraq-style 'surge' in Gaza

Analysis | Middle East

Let’s be frank. David Petraeus never misses an opportunity to promote himself as a modern-day MacArthur, a genius in the art of war whose 2007 military campaign in Iraq is the gold-standard for aspiring strategists seeking to profit off the travesties of armed conflict.

It should come as no surprise then that the former general and CIA director weighed in recently with a didactic primer for Israeli civilian and military leaders overseeing one of the worst war-related calamities of the 21st century. Follow my counsel, Petraeus submits, and you too shall succeed, as did I, in turning around a failing war.

Last week Petraeus co-authored an opinion piece in Foreign Affairs with Harvard Kennedy School professor Meghan L. O’Sullivan and Richard Fontaine, the CEO of the Center for a New American Security. But make no mistake,this was no serious analysis of the ongoing Israeli conflict, rather a chance for the general himself to highlight his personal “successes” in Iraq and demonstrate their universal lessons to any conflict in the Middle East.

In reality, what Petraeus and his co-authors penned was an example of why a lessons-based approach to history is wrongheaded at best and dangerous at worst. It also highlights how, nearly 15 years after U.S. troops departed Iraq, the retired general still aspires to both control and revise the narrative over America’s disastrous intervention in Middle Eastern affairs.

The authors begin by falsely comparing current Israeli military strategy against the Palestinians to the Iraq “regime change” approach under George W. Bush’s administration. It seems clear through its actions, however, that the Netanyahu government has set its sights far higher than replacing Hamas with another entity capable of representing Palestinian political aspirations. Given Israeli Defense Force (IDF) operations over the past few months, we might ask if Netanyahu is seeking “regime change” or complete physical, political, and economic control over Palestinian lives, if not, some might argue, their eradication?

Petraeus et al. describe Israeli actions as an “understandable response” to the appalling and indefensible terrorist attacks of October 7, 2023. Yet when such a response is so immensely disproportional, when the casualty disparities are so incredibly galling, how can it be understandable? Senior civilian and military leaders are supposed to manage violence on behalf of their state, not be the central proponents for its unfettered use. Yet Netanyahu decries any limitations to that violence and has been unsparing in his defense of what can only be described as wartime atrocities.

So how can Netanyahu learn from American “successes” in Iraq? Of course, by examining the 2007 “surge” under Petraeus’s command. What follows in the Foreign Affairs article are three broad “lessons” that, not surprisingly, form the central pillars of the surge myth that the general and his acolytes have advanced for more than a decade now.

First, Israelis should “clear and hold” territory to root out Hamas terrorists, just as U.S. forces did to insurgents operating inside Iraq. While Petraeus, O’Sullivan, and Fontaine acknowledge civilian casualties “inevitably resulted” — thus conveniently sidestepping any responsibility for those casualties — they offer no proof that the IDF has any intention of protecting Palestinian civilians once territory is held. Indeed, the opposite seems to hold true as IDF soldiers routinely have been captured on film mocking civilians displaced by the fighting raging around them.

In truth, the authors rarely, if ever, mention innocent Palestinians at all. Rather, they focus their arguments on those “criminals, insurgents, and reconstituted Hamas battalions” as they meekly suggest that Israelis should pledge to “make life better and more secure for civilians.” One wonders how that might happen as they concurrently recommend the IDF construct gated communities, control points, biometric screenings, and engage in “constant patrols.” Would not ordinary Palestinian civilians see this as little more than military occupation? Did not Iraqis who watched American troops roam their cities in fear of what followed the occupying forces?

Next, Petraeus and company offer the lesson of “build and revive,” the next pillar of the surge narrative and, more broadly, counterinsurgency theory. Here, the lessons are as simple as they are straightforward. In clearing and holding key Iraqi cities, they argue, American forces provided the security needed for political and economic initiatives to flourish. Benevolent U.S. troops offered an alternative to the violence of insurgency, all while giving the government in Baghdad the necessary breathing room to rebuild a war-torn nation. All was going well until feckless civilians back in Washington pulled the plug and called the troops back home.

While the authors rightfully acknowledge some key American missteps in Iraq, like the de-Baathification program and disbandment of the Iraqi army — decisions conveniently made before Petraeus’s arrival — the parallels to the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict are suspect at best. The authors note none of the Palestinian political goals or how they conflict with longstanding Israeli objectives, simply stating that the Palestinian Authority has “obvious flaws” and is in “need for reform.”

Given the brutality of IDF operations over the past few months, are we to believe that the Israeli military is interested in providing a just “security umbrella” under which the Palestinian Authority could administer governance and basic services? And, as in Iraq, a key question remains unanswered: who gets to define “secure” in such a hostile environment? Given the disproportionate response by the IDF to the Hamas terrorist attack, it seems doubtful that both sides would agree on an impartial definition of security.

Moreover, Petraeus is sanitizing history here. He omits the limits of American counterinsurgency theory, the utter destruction of Iraq cities like Mosul when the United States had to return to contend with ISIS, or the failed surge in Afghanistan that he himself promoted. Where was the political-economic flourishing in the wake of American interventions? The general never says.

Finally, Petraeus offers his most self-serving recommendation by advising the Israelis to “tell them how this ends.” The title of a biography on the general, the term is shorthand for laying out a “clear desired end-state” in hopes of gaining and then sustaining political support to fight generational wars. To the general, this was the key failure of the American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Policymakers failed to convince the nation of the need for a long-term occupation of foreign lands to provide security both at home and abroad. They erred in garnering lasting support for the “resource-intensive strategy that saw success during the U.S. surge in Iraq.”

At best, this is a narcissistic portrayal from a retired general seeking relevance by pontificating on all matters military. At worst, this is flawed history advocating for more bloodshed, conflating America’s disastrous wars in Iraq with a slaughter-house in Gaza. In either case, it’s time we stop trying to learn from David Petraeus and seek the one thing missing from the general’s Foreign Affairs essay — a diplomatic end to the carnage of an increasingly unjust war.

Editorial credit: paparazzza / Shutterstock.com

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