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Measuring the Man in Charge

Author: Max Boot, Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Senior Fellow for National Security Studies
January 21, 2012
Wall Street Journal

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Paula Broadwell, a 1995 West Point graduate and former Army officer, went to work in 2008 on a doctoral dissertation at King's College London on Gen. David Petraeus and his role in U.S. military innovation in the post-9/11 era. When the general, after striking success with the troop "surge" in Iraq, was appointed as the senior U.S. commander in Afghanistan in July 2010, Ms. Broadwell decided to try to spin off a book from her research. She found a high-powered agent, she says in "All In: The Education of General David Petraeus," who persuaded her to "go big" with a book of considerably wider scope and greater sales prospects than her dissertation. Vernon Loeb, an editor at the Washington Post, was recruited as her co-author.

The result is a volume that intersperses an account of Gen. Petraeus's life story with an insider's look at the general's year in command in Afghanistan, where he had granted Ms. Broadwell access to his headquarters. Events in Afghanistan serve as a spur for biographical flashbacks showing how Gen. Petraeus grappled with similar challenges in past commands. As if this were not enough, "All In" adds battlefield vignettes gleaned from Ms. Broadwell's visits across Afghanistan with battalion commanders of the 101st Airborne, Gen. Petraeus's old division, and with a Dari-speaking Special Forces officer who embedded as a counterinsurgency adviser with Afghan army units.

The problem is that battlefield reporting from Afghanistan has been done better elsewhere, particularly by Bing West and Sebastian Junger, while the behind-the-scenes material does not contain any of the embarrassing, high-level revelations typical of Bob Woodward books. But what "All In" does provide is a valuable perspective on how Gen. Petraeus—the most successful U.S. general of his generation—approached the war in Afghanistan and other crucial junctures in his career, most notably the Iraq surge. As an unofficial adviser to Gen. Petraeus who visited Afghanistan several times during his year in command and who knows many of the people the book portrays, I can attest that the account is dead-bang accurate. It is, in fact, probably the best depiction yet of Gen. Petraeus's management style.

Ms. Broadwell and Mr. Loeb begin by laying out the "four tasks" that Gen. Petraeus urges "strategic leaders" to perform. First, get "the big ideas right"; second, communicate those "big ideas"; third, oversee "the implementation of those big ideas"; and finally capture "best practices and lessons" and cycle them "back through the system to help refine the big ideas." The authors then show how Gen. Petraeus applied this approach to such basic tasks as crafting rules on the use of force designed to strike a balance between being aggressive without causing unnecessary civilian casualties.

The authors write that Gen. Petraeus has a disregard for rank rare in the hierarchical world of the Army—he values "brains, judgment and a great work ethic" above all else and is willing to invest his trust in those of relatively modest rank if they exhibit such characteristics. He is also comfortable with circumventing the chain of command by giving out his email address to low-ranking officers and encouraging them to contact him directly with pressing concerns.

Many of the "All In" vignettes will have anyone familiar with Gen. Petraeus nodding in recognition. There is, for instance, his penchant for citing the "lick 'em tomorrow" line that Ulysses S. Grant supposedly uttered to William Sherman during the tough days of the Battle of Shiloh in 1862. Or his affinity for a Frederic Remington painting, "The Stampede," that shows a cowboy trying to wrangle runaway cattle during a violent storm—an image that Gen. Petraeus cites to convey how wartime leaders must be "comfortable with semi-chaotic situations." But even those most familiar with Gen. Petraeus will learn something new here: I did not know, for example, that "The Stampede" was a gift from Gen. John Galvin, one of Gen. Petraeus's mentors.

Ms. Broadwell and Mr. Loeb do a good job of capturing Gen. Petraeus's personality, which combines extreme competitiveness, a disarming sense of humor, a modest self-presentation and consideration for those around him. Gen. Petraeus is known for mentoring promising junior officers and encouraging them to pursue higher education in elite civilian universities—something that he, as a Princeton Ph.D., values far more than many of his military peers.

Given that the book appears a mere six months after Gen. Petraeus left Afghanistan to take over the directorship of the Central Intelligence Agency, it is much too soon to tell how successful he was. Gen. Petraeus himself arrives at a measured judgment of his year in command: "Overall," the authors write with characteristic neutrality, "Petraeus felt that the military campaign, while facing innumerable challenges, was moving in the right direction." The book neither challenges nor supports such statements; readers are left to make of them what they will.

Likewise, when Ms. Broadwell and Mr. Loeb note that some (including retired Gen. Jack Keane and myself) advised Gen. Petraeus to consider resigning in protest over President Obama's decision in June 2011 to pull the plug on the surge in Afghanistan much faster than was militarily prudent, they write that Gen. Petraeus rejected such advice: "Obama's decision to draw down forces faster than he had recommended did not, in his mind, begin to approach the threshold for such an extraordinary act as resignation. He thought it would have been a selfish, grandstanding move with huge political ramifications." Fair enough, but what do the authors think? Was Gen. Petraeus right or not? They never say. This is typical of "All In's" lack of independent perspective.

As is so often the case, the authors' greatest fault is a byproduct of their greatest virtue: loyalty. Gen. Petraeus granted Ms. Broadwell considerable access and, it seems clear, she does not want to abuse his trust by showing his actions in an unfavorable light—or even in a light differing from the one that Gen. Petraeus himself would use. Thus, for example, the kid-glove treatment of NATO.

The authors note, in words that could have come straight from their subject's mouth, that the "greatest challenge" of coalition warfare was "the high maintenance required to keep the members marching together." We're told that various "national caveats and the variance in levels of training, capability and readiness required a nuanced understanding of partner capabilities." But then the authors report that Gen. Petraeus "enjoyed the intellectual stimulation and the opportunity to help diplomatic partners expand the coalition." They conclude by noting, as a major accomplishment, that "by the end of his tour, forty-nine international partners and Afghanistan were contributing forces to the mission."

The book does not, however, mention that many of the international partners' contributions were token efforts (a few staff officers here, a platoon there) that sucked up valuable American logistics and bogged down decision-making without making an appreciable contribution to winning the war. But then the authors tend to elide uncomfortable details. For example, "All In" offers quotes from Ms. Broadwell's interviews with Col. Michael Meese, an extraordinary officer who served as Gen. Petraeus's deputy chief of staff in Kabul and who has a long history of working closely with the general. The authors do not, however, write what they must know: that Col. Meese was widely considered the real chief of staff at NATO headquarters because that job title was held by European officers who did not enjoy Gen. Petraeus's trust and confidence, at least not to the same degree. Such jury-rigged arrangements are necessary to deal with an unwieldy coalition where jobs are awarded based on nationality and not merit.

Gen. Petraeus probably would not like to see such details in print—as CIA director, he would not want to complicate his relations with other countries. But Ms. Broadwell and Mr. Loeb do their subject no favors by uncritically repeating his diplomatic niceties. Gen. Petraeus's achievements are great enough that he would benefit from a more objective and nuanced portrait.

Mr. Boot, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, is the author of "War Made New: Technology, Warfare, and the Course of History, 1500 to Today."

This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here (Subscription required).

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