The Magazine

Gen. David Petraeus,
Man of the Year

Time magazine got it wrong.

Dec 31, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 16 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
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I remember the excitement. It was the week before Christmas a year ago, and I had lazily picked up my copy of Time magazine. And there it was: Time's Person of the Year for 2006 is "You."

Wow! We deserved credit, Time judged, "for seizing the reins of the global media, for founding and framing the new digital democracy, for working for nothing and beating the pros at their own game." Thanks, Time!

And thanks for not choosing the obvious alternative--Nancy Pelosi, who had led the Democratic takeover of Congress. That takeover, Time editors and many others hoped, heralded our withdrawal from Iraq. However much they may have desired that outcome, Time was lucky not to select Pelosi. In the subsequent 12 months, she and her colleagues failed to impose a defeat in Iraq. Instead, President Bush announced a new strategy and a new commander, General David Petraeus, in January 2007. And all the real achievements of this year belong to them.

We are now winning the war. To say this was not inevitable is an understatement. Even those of us who were early advocates and strong supporters of the surge, and who thought it could succeed, knew the situation had so deteriorated that success was by no means guaranteed. Two military experts told me early in 2007 that they thought the odds of success were, respectively, 1-in-3 and 1-in-4. They nonetheless supported the surge because, even at those odds, it was a gamble worth taking, so devastating would be the consequences of withdrawal and defeat. We at THE WEEKLY STANDARD thought the chances of success were better than 50-50--but that it remained a difficult proposition.

Petraeus pulled it off. The war is not over, of course. Too quick and deep a drawdown--which some in the Pentagon and elsewhere in the Bush administration are, appallingly, pushing for--could throw away the amazing success that has been achieved. Still: It is as clear as anything can be in this world, where we judge through a glass darkly, that General David H. Petraeus is, in fact, America's man of the year.

Time ludicrously chose to make Russia's ex-KGB agent-turned president Vladimir Putin its cover boy. They just couldn't make Petraeus man--oops--person of the year. Our liberal elites are so invested in a narrative of defeat and disaster in Iraq that to acknowledge the prospect of victory would be too head-wrenching and heart-rending. It would mean giving credit to George W. Bush, for one. And it would mean acknowledging American success in a war Time, and the Democratic party, and the liberal elites, had proclaimed lost.

The editors couldn't acknowledge their mugging by reality. That's fine. Nonetheless, reality exists. And the reality is that in Iraq, after mistakes and failures, thanks to the leadership of Bush, Petraeus, and General Ray Odierno--the day-to-day commander whose contributions shouldn't be overlooked--we are winning.

The reality is also this: The counterinsurgency campaign that Petraeus and Odierno conceived and executed in 2007 was as comprehensive a counterinsurgency strategy as has ever been executed. The heart of the strategy was a brilliant series of coordinated military operations throughout the entire theater. Petraeus and Odierno used conventional U.S. forces, Iraqi military and police, and Iraqi and U.S. Special Operations forces to strike enemy strongholds throughout Iraq simultaneously, while also working to protect the local populations from enemy responses. Successive operations across the theater knocked the enemy--both al Qaeda and Sunni militias, and Shia extremists--off balance and then prevented them from recovering. U.S. and Iraqi forces, supported by local citizens, chased the enemy from area to area, never allowing them the breathing space to reestablish safe havens, much less new bases. It wasn't "whack-a-mole" or "squeezing the water balloon" as some feared (and initially claimed)--it was the relentless pursuit of an increasingly defeated enemy.

That defeat has implications far beyond Iraq. In 2007, Iraq's Sunni Arabs fought with us against al Qaeda, and Iraq's Shia Arabs joined with us to fight Iranian-backed Shia militias. So much for the notion that Americans were doomed to fail in their efforts to mobilize moderate Muslims against jihadists. The progress in Iraq in 2007 represents a strategic breakthrough for the broader Middle East whose importance would be hard to overstate.

One additional point: Petraeus's counterinsurgency stands out not just for its conceptual ambition and the skill of its execution but for its humanity. There were those who argued that the U.S. military could not succeed in counterinsurgency because Americans were not tough and bloodthirsty enough. They said that brutality was essential in subduing insurgents and our humanity would be our downfall.