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David Petraeus Does D.C.

It’s easy to get distracted by all the titillating details when we think about the David Petraeus story. There’s the suggestive title of his lover Paula Broadwell’s fawning biography, All In. There’s Broadwell’s penchant for showing off her well-toned arms, and their famous jogging interviews. These ingredients helped make Petraeus’s fall from grace an all-American, Grade-A celebrity scandal.

But the Broadwell episode was actually just a bump in the road for Petraeus. The real theme of his story is much more banal, but much more insidious: seemingly invincible job security, despite a string of failures. He can fail as a general, violate the Uniformed Military Code of Justice by committing adultery, leak classified information, then lie about it to the FBI, and still somehow end up on his feet.

After Petraeus’s ignoble departure from the CIA in 2012, the assumption was that his public life was over. With tail between his legs, Petraeus quietly went to work consulting for private equity, presumably to wait out the FBI investigation into his breaches of national security—all while making bank. And still he continues to fail upwards.

Newsweek reported this week that, despite his legal troubles, Petraeus has been advising the White House on the situation with ISIS at least since last summer. After passing classified information to his lover, and then lying to the FBI about it, Petraeus gets a $40,000 fine, a cushy private consulting job, and retains access to (and influence within) the White House.

But the rot goes deeper than merely giving a leaky former General access to privileged information. King David’s continued influence is most awe-inspiring because he was a strategic failure as a general. David Petraeus’s reputation as a counter-insurgency wunderkind is a self-branding coup of the highest order.

The story of how Petraeus’s product, COIN (a tortured acronym for “counterinsurgency”), gained favor among the power elite in Washington is a long one that stretches back to officer in-fighting following the war in Vietnam. To give the complete history would be to tell the entire story of the Post-Soviet neverending global policeman bullshit game—since we don’t have time for that, let’s just start in Kansas, 2005, in a tale told by Fred Kaplan in his book The Insurgents.

Petraeus is a three-star general commanding the U.S. Army Combined Arms Center (CAC). CAC Commander is the perfect position from which to launch an ideological overhaul of American counterinsurgency strategy, which Petraeus proceeded to do. In December of 2006 he published FM 3-24, the COIN field manual for the military. It quickly became a best-seller. Andrew Bacevich describes FM 3-24 in his book Washington Rules as

an exercise in deconstruction, dismantling hallowed conceptions of warfare while contriving a substitute suited to the exercise of great power politics in the twilight of modernity. In the postmodern age, after all, what matters most is not originality but novelty, not intrinsic value but marketing, not product but packaging.

So it was fitting that Petraeus write such a manual.

FM 3-24 reads with the opacity of a New Age self help manual. “Sometimes, the more you protect your force, the less secure you may be,” it advises in the first chapter. “Sometimes, the more forced is used, the less effective it is.” As Bacevich points out, this word, “sometimes,” is used often throughout FM 3-24, crouching its inscrutable assertions in the grammar of plausible deniability. (“So less could be more, more could be less, and nothing could be most of all—sometimes,” Bacevich writes.)

The FM 3-24 was the Bible that Petraeus carried into Baghdad when implementing the surge. And so its failures are meaningful. By its own standards, the surge in 2007 was a disappointment. The White House claimed that its goals were to stop the fighting between the various sects in Iraq, and to help them form a functional government. That simply didn’t happen. Retired General Daniel Bolger said, “The surge didn’t ‘win’ anything. It bought time.” And there were more important factors than troop numbers that contributed to the relative calm that settled over Iraq in 2007-2008. A study in Small Wars Journal found that Sunni tribes turning against Al-Qaeda and the stand-down of local militias “affect security more than the number of deployed coalition battalions.”

I agree. I was in Iraq in 2007, serving as an enlisted infantryman. The peace seemed tenuous, as if everyone had gotten wise to the idea that if they stopped fighting each other for a while, the Americans would leave, and they could then finish the job unhindered by our meddling. The calm was eerie, and we knew that the Sunni uprising really meant that we were paying the Sunnis not to kill us anymore.

A fundamental aspect of the surge was getting patrols out into the communities to gather intelligence and make arrests. We did police work, in other words. And as you might imagine, an armed, scared, twenty-year-old in a foreign country doesn’t make the best police officer. People probably got swept up in the net that shouldn’t have been, and many were held without trial. There’s a direct line that runs between the policing aspect of the surge and the “jihad universities” that American and Iraqi prisons came to be called.

People across the political spectrum agree that the surge was a failure. In FM 3-24, Petraeus wrote what amounts to a high-word-count fortune cookie. Then, he betrayed classified information to a civilian, lied to the FBI about it, and escaped prison time for any of it. Now he’s making millions and advising the White House on how to deal with a problem that he most likely contributed to in the first place.

It’s incredible, the number of chances some elite figures are given to fuck up. Some people are never allowed to step up to the plate. Petraeus keeps swinging and missing, ad infinitum.