Putting on a brave face

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 12 April, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 12 April, 2008, 12:00am

A half-dozen protesters in burqas, their faces deathly pale with make-up, greeted General David Petraeus as the commander of US forces in Iraq arrived on Capitol Hill this week to brief senators about his country's progress in the five-year-old war.

Shortly after the hearing started, they disrupted proceedings with shouts of 'Stop the killing' and other anti-war slogans before security intervened. General Petraeus looked up briefly as the protesters were led away, shuffled his papers and returned to his testimony as if nothing had happened.

It was typical of his famously calm demeanour. Compared to the rocket attacks on Baghdad's Green Zone and an ongoing insurgency that has claimed the lives of more than 4,000 US troops, General Petraeus would have found it a minor incident: an everyday protest that was over in the blink of an eye.

Yet to critics of the media-savvy and highly educated general, the episode had parallels in his application of President George W. Bush's much-criticised Iraq policy since becoming its steward 14 months ago.

His perceived carry-on-regardless approach is wearing thin with those who believe General Petraeus emphasises to excess small gains over mounting losses and displays a startling lack of foresight about when his troops might finally be heading home.

'The big questions that he didn't answer were, 'How does this end? When does this end?'' said Lawrence Korb, senior fellow at the Centre for American Progress, a Washington think-tank, and an assistant US secretary of defence under former president Ronald Reagan. 'After spending nearly three-quarters of a trillion dollars, after more than 4,000 lost American lives alongside hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, this remains the central question.'

Of the general's testimony, graphs and charts highlighting recent political and military gains in Iraq led Mr Korb to believe the general has been selective.

'He's trying to put the best face on things. If you look at the data he presented, it's not wrong. But he seems oblivious to the upturn in violence this week. He talks up the trouble that we would leave behind in Iraq if we withdrew, but he's unable to say what will happen if we stay. The American people deserve more. It's not his strategy but he's the one promoting it.'

David Howell Petraeus was born in New York state in 1952, the son of a Dutch sea captain who emigrated during the second world war. At school, where classmates nicknamed him Peaches because they could not pronounce his Greek-sounding surname, he excelled at soccer and skiing.

Soon after his graduation from military academy in 1974, he married Holly Knowlton, daughter of a Vietnam war veteran, and embarked on an army career that has seen him serve in Haiti, Kuwait and Bosnia.

Mr Bush had high expectations when he nominated General Petraeus to succeed General George Casey as commander of the multi-national force in Iraq in January last year. He believed then, as now, that the 55-year-old career officer with a doctorate in international relations had the credibility and experience to turn the tide of the war and deflect at least some of the criticism aimed at the White House.

'An optimistic general will trump a sceptical politician anytime,' says Time magazine columnist Joe Klein.

General Petraeus was the commanding officer of the 101st Airborne Division, which saw some of the heaviest fighting of the conflict in Karbala and Najaf as it battled its way to Baghdad in the summer of 2003.

Residents of Mosul called him 'King David' as he oversaw thousands of reconstruction projects once the major fighting was over and his division had settled in to the occupation. If he was frustrated at commanding a 17,000-strong elite fighting force whose new role was often just to provide building-site security, he never complained - a silence that would have played well in the White House.

But he often repeated the phrase 'money is ammunition' to the politicians holding the purse strings of the reconstruction effort, and argued that his discretionary use of funds for public projects in Mosul was an effective tool in winning the support of locals.

In late 2006, when advisers persuaded Mr Bush of the merits of a 'surge' of an additional 20,000 to 30,000 American troops in Iraq, and General Casey baulked at the idea, the president turned instead to General Petraeus. His expertise as co-author of the army's new field manual on counter-insurgency made him an impressive candidate for the task at hand.

Another selling point was his razor-sharp intellect. General Petraeus graduated from the US Military Academy at West Point in the top 5 per cent of the class of 1974 and later earned a PhD in international relations at Princeton University during a study break in the late 1980s.

While history will record Mr Bush as the man who appointed him military commander in Iraq, he has another politician to thank for being able to deliver his report to Congress this week - former Senate majority leader Bill Frist.

In September 1991, General Petraeus was shot in the chest when an infantryman accidentally fired his rifle during training in Tennessee. He was taken by helicopter to hospital while Mr Frist, then a young surgeon, was called off a nearby golf course to perform a life-saving operation.

'He describes the wound as 'damage done by the M16 round that went right through my right chest, happily over the A in Petraeus [rather] than over the A in US Army, as that letter is over my heart',' Mr Frist recalled. 'I knew this patient was a little different when he said so quickly, 'If we've got a problem that needs to be fixed, let's get on with it.' The straightforward decisiveness and call for action with results, traits we see from General Petraeus so often today, reared their head in those few moments of conversation before I began to operate.'

The two remain friends.

Another fan is presumptive Republican presidential candidate John McCain, who questioned General Petraeus in Congress this week. 'The man often referred to as a warrior-scholar has made many rethink the idea, enshrined as conventional Washington wisdom, that the war was already lost,' Senator McCain wrote last year in Time, which later named General Petraeus a runner-up to Russian President Vladimir Putin as its Person of the Year. 'Petraeus, along with the courageous men and women he has the honour to command, is our best reason to hope that we might yet avoid the catastrophe of an American defeat in Iraq,' it said.

If he wins November's election to succeed Mr Bush, Senator McCain will become the commander-in-chief who decides General Petraeus's next move. 'If McCain gets in, he'll probably want him to continue, but if [Hillary Rodham] Clinton or [Barack] Obama wins, you just don't know,' Mr Korb said.

'It's tough for him if it's a Democrat and they change strategy. He might get a Nato job, and I suspect he has ambitions for politics. He's still comparatively young and very bright.'

General Petraeus denies such ambitions and told congressmen this week with typical honesty that he still had much work to be done in Iraq, despite Mr Bush's insistence that the US held the initiative.

'We haven't turned any corners,' he said. 'We haven't seen any lights at the end of the tunnel. The champagne bottle's been pushed to the back of the refrigerator.'