General David Petraeus, handpicked executor of military "surges" in Iraq for George W. Bush and Afghanistan for Barack Obama, has assumed an outsized place in American public life. Perhaps the only current serving general who is anything close to a household name, Petraeus has the ability to make normally sober observers swoon: GOP bloggers fantasize about a presidential run, and former California Rep. Jane Harman, not usually given to hyperbole, called him "the Eisenhower of his generation or the George Washington of his generation."
The Senate is expected to vote today to confirm Petraeus as the new of director of central intelligence. As he prepares to depart Afghanistan to retire from the military and take up the civilian post, Petraeus has been cast -- somewhat against his will -- as the lead opponent in the administration's internal debate of a withdrawal timetable. With it assumed broadly around Washington that the Defense and State departments favor fewer troop removals, and with Vice President Joe Biden having supported a smaller footprint in Afghanistan since 2009, a complex internal debate has been recast, in the words of Sen. Lindsey Graham, as "Petraeus lost; Biden won."
Textbook civil-military relations do not include field generals challenging the White House on strategy or elected officials egging on the uniformed military. Yet at his CIA confirmation hearing last week, Petraeus wasn't asked about past intelligence failures or accountability challenges at the CIA. He wasn't asked about the burning problems of collecting intelligence on North Korea, cybersecurity, or China. Instead, he was questioned about his opinion on the president's Afghan policy. Petraeus reminded senators that the duty of soldiers, when the president makes a decision, is "to execute that decision to the best of our ability" -- a basic tenet of civil-military relations that the elected officials seemed to have forgotten.
A Martian who dropped in to visit us could be forgiven for imagining that our nation is ruled from Virginia, while a president supported by a small staff in Washington merely advises the Pentagon on the views of the citizenry. One of the more pragmatic Republican policy wonks I know let his enthusiasm for Petraeus run so far away with him as to write: "The appointment of David Petraeus as CIA Director amounts to a demotion with honor ... his immense stature and strong views were too much for the President to handle."
So now membership in the president's cabinet is a "demotion," and managing your generals' career paths is a manhood test for the commander in chief?
Behind so much of what passes for debate and informed commentary across the spectrum on foreign policy lurks a dangerous fantasy about the simplicity and superiority of military institutions, decision-making, and solutions. Petraeus is about to find out, in spades, how challenging the transition between the two spheres is and how frequently what is true in one is not quite true in the other. American political history is littered with CIA directors who hoped a stint at the agency would be a career stepping-stone, not a capstone. For every George H.W. Bush there is a James Woolsey.
Petraeus has going for him the political and institutional savoir faire he has demonstrated in rising to a four-star rank and national prominence. Yet he will face, as the fervor around him at his confirmation hearings indicated, outsized personal expectations and a broader political culture that imagines an application of military men and military solutions can resolve challenges that the political system has given up on. If Petraeus lets himself be seduced by this fantasy, he will be swallowed by Langley -- and our society more broadly will go one step further toward forgetting what the role we ask of our military in a democracy actually is -- and what challenges civilians need to demand of themselves. Here are three lessons that Petraeus has to learn, for his sake and ours:
Counterinsurgency Offers a Limited View of Reality: The problem of the CIA's intelligence-collecting on Afghanistan and the agency's disagreement with Petraeus' counterinsurgency strategy there has been much discussed. Less often mentioned is the need for the CIA to focus as well on civilian intelligence challenges, including cyber-espionage, economic trends, and nuclear proliferation. The complexity of the CIA's mission, the competing priorities, the demand to be right about everything all the time are all part of the civilian side of the house.
Not Every Problem Has a Military Solution: Petraeus himself has said with respect to Afghanistan that the long-term solution is political, not military -- though his military planning did not always seem to bear this out. This will be a dramatic change for him to take up. Our political culture post-9/11 has lost, if it ever had, the muscles to consider and field non-military solutions with the same vigor we pursue military actions. Consider the number of column inches devoted to whether the president should withdraw 5,000, 10,000, or 30,000 troops from Afghanistan over six, 12, or 18 months - versus the inches devoted to what our political strategy is, which elements of the Taliban we should be negotiating with, and what other parties need to be at the table. Or consider the current effort in Congress to cut aid to Pakistan's civilian government, which no one believes was complicit in sheltering bin Laden, and to maintain assistance to the military, which does seem to have been aware of bin Laden's location.
"Our Troopers Don't Get to Quit." Petraeus said this at his confirmation hearing, in response to suggestions that he should have quit when Obama decided to draw down in Afghanistan faster than Petraeus had proposed. In the civilian sector, of course, employees do get to quit -- and do so if they are not motivated and appreciated. Petraeus is taking the place of a leader who was well liked within the CIA and respected for his efforts to revive its bruised self-respect; Petraeus will have to learn new ways to lead where military rules and discipline don't apply.
Many will be watching, in- and outside government, to see whether Petraeus can succeed. He has chosen to retire from the military, which not all active-duty military men chosen to lead the CIA have done. Again and again last week, he explained to his Senate interlocutors that an officer's job is to execute the commander-in-chief's orders, not to second-guess them to Congress. His success or failure will tell us much about his own adaptability. It may tell us something about the management challenges at the CIA. But it will be unfortunate if the transformation of General Petraeus to Director Petraeus ends the broader public discussion about the role of the military in our public life -- just as it was getting started. Perhaps, instead, the triumph of Director Petraeus will awaken a new understanding and respect for what our public servants out of uniform already do on our behalf every day. Let's hope it also challenges us to ask how we might valorize and reward those efforts in our politics at home.