The Magazine

The Man for the Plan

Meet General David Petraeus, the new commander in Iraq .

Jan 29, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 19 • By THOMAS DONNELLY
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"We need a man, and then a plan." So Field Marshall Bernard Law Montgomery is reported to have said when recommending General Sir Gerald Templer to be British high commissioner at the height of the Malayan insurgency. When, in January 1952, Templer was summoned to meet the prime minister, the British Dominion of Malaya had been under a state of emergency for almost four years. Churchill, newly returned to power and further satiated by a full dinner, waved a glass of brandy and bellowed: "Templer! Malaya!" A few minutes later: "Templer! Full powers!" And finally, "Full power, Templer. Very heady stuff. Use it sparingly."

If Gerald Templer was the face of Britain in Malaya, David Petraeus is now to be the face of America in Iraq: Perhaps as soon as Tuesday, the Senate will confirm Petraeus's promotion to four-star general and he will assume command of "Multi-National Force-Iraq" in Baghdad. But generals, wrote John Keegan in The Mask of Command, "may be many things besides the commander of an army." A general may, Keegan continued, "carry both society and army farther than they believed they wished to travel."

Americans are near the point of wishing to travel no farther in Iraq. After tolerating Saddam Hussein's outrages for two decades, we find ourselves four years past his removal with the Iraqi government still unable to govern the country. At home, there is barely enough political will to press forward. Nor is there much belief that the Bush administration can chart the way. Petraeus must be many things, indeed: He must carry Americans and Iraqis alike farther than we think we wish to travel.

Happily, Petraeus, whom I've known and observed for nearly 20 years, wears "the mask of command" as well as any current officer. He's already done so successfully for Iraqis. As commander of the 101st Airborne Division at the time of the invasion, Petraeus quickly found himself effectively the mayor of Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city, and governor of the surrounding province at a time when the Saddam government had collapsed and the Coalition Provisional Authority barely existed on paper, let alone on the ground in northern Iraq. The Marine battalion that had been the first U.S. unit to enter Mosul was much too small to undertake the necessary tasks. Petraeus immediately threw himself into establishing what was, in effect, an occupation authority and creating a public persona for himself; admirers and skeptics alike called him "Petraeus Pasha" or "King David," though not often to his face. Importantly, he allowed his subordinates an equal latitude. Not every decision made was perfect--there was, alas, no real U.S. occupation policy, and, when Ambassador Paul Bremer set a different course, there were clashes--but Mosul as run by the 101st Airborne remains a tantalizing image of what an intelligent American occupation might have been like.

And Petraeus has successfully worn the mask for American audiences; for all our civil-military fretting about "men on horseback," we seem to like charismatic commanders almost as much as Iraqis do. Not the least of these audiences is the U.S. Army itself. Petraeus long has been marked as ambitious and smart--two qualities both admired and distrusted in the service. When I met him, he was working as the personal aide to then-chief of staff General Carl Vuono. Generals' aides don't necessarily long survive the passing of their sponsor and his posse; the officer corps can be clannish and prone to petty politics and jealousies. Petraeus has been assiduous in matching his reputation as a field soldier with his reputation as an intellect. He not only earned a doctorate from Prince ton's Woodrow Wilson School--writing on the effects of the Vietnam war on civil-military relations--but also keeps himself maniacally fit. The speed of his recovery from a gunshot wound received on a rifle range when he was commanding a battalion in the 101st Airborne is legendary. (The wound required a five-hour operation--performed by Dr. Bill Frist.)