The world -- at least the world of the U.S. military -- is General David Petraeus' oyster. Nearly a year after Petraeus assumed command of Multinational Force-Iraq, as the military command in Baghdad is known, violence is ebbing back up, sectarian reconciliation remains deadlocked, and the surge is coming to an end. Yet Petraeus' reputation as a miracle worker is as assured as it ever was -- and before that changes, Petraeus is eyeing an exit from Baghdad. Tout Washington is trying to figure out where he'll work his magic next. "Trying to guess General Petraeus' next assignment is the most popular parlor game in the Pentagon these days," department spokesman Geoff Morrell told The New York Times for a piece yesterday exploring Petraeus' options.
Indeed, Petraeus can basically write his next round of orders. But wherever he goes, his next important campaign probably won't be on any battlefield. It'll be political. For the past year, the GOP has laid the groundwork to enlist Petraeus as its standard-bearer in the fairly likely event that the party loses in November to Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama. You read it here first. Plant your lawn signs now. Petraeus 2012: Surging to the White House.
Petraeus emerged from his first two assignments in Iraq -- commanding the 101st Airborne Division from 2003 to 2004 and then the training of Iraqi security forces from 2004 to 2005 -- as the only general to leave the war with his reputation enhanced. But in 2007, the GOP turned him into a demigod. The surgeniks at The Weekly Standard led the charge. Just days after Petraeus arrived in Baghdad, editor Bill Kristol hectored GOP senators against scaling back the war as "anti-surge, anti-Petraeus, anti-troops, and anti-victory." At the time, Petraeus was well-respected in Washington and in military circles but still an obscure figure, making Kristol's invocation somewhat curious. But embattled war supporters -- including President Bush -- saw an opportunity: They could hold the line on Iraq by transforming Bush's War into Petraeus' War. Petraeus is a talented general. But he needed to become a legend.
The mythmaking reached its fever pitch during Petraeus' defining September 2007 war testimony. Hard as it may be to remember now, in September, the surge hadn't delivered on its promise of engendering Iraqi political resolutions. Yet an ill-advised ad by the liberal group MoveOn.org excoriating "General Betray Us" allowed GOP legislators to transform a hearing on the war's questionable progress into a defense of Petraeus' professionalism and virtue. Enabled by a supine press corps, a political persona -- the legendary warrior enduring the slings and arrows of invidious antiwar forces -- was born. Ironically, the "Betray Us" locution originated in 2003 with Pentagon civilians who disapproved of Petraeus' reluctance to purge Sunnis from the government in Mosul or close the border with Syria. Those days, needless to say, are long forgotten. One of the more perfervid neocon sheets, The New York Sun, ran an editorial in September headlined, "Petraeus For President?" The question mark was unnecessary.
But it was also premature. The rationale for a Petraeus candidacy depends on the GOP coalition fracturing under the weight of the war -- something that hasn't happened yet. In the event of a Republican loss in November, the party will have to come to terms with the legacy of the war. The most politically advantageous way of doing that will be to draft a symbol of the Iraq war as it might have been: engineered and executed not by the hidebound ideologues and incompetents of the Bush administration, but by a nimble, dexterous warrior-scholar. It's true that John McCain has made the surgenik critique of the war for a long time. But it's a whole new political world when articulated by the man responsible -- in the media's imagination, at least -- with the war's belated redemption.
So what the GOP faithful have done, whether by design or by accident, is to signal that they're Petraeus' natural political allies. And with the left souring on Petraeus as he commands the war, they're not entirely wrong to do so. As a result, when Petraeus decides to retire, he'll do so as a war hero with a sterling reputation among establishment Washington and as a deity on the right. The war will still be a disaster, but the GOP strategy of lionizing Petraeus means he'll be remembered not as a man who helped mitigate an irredeemable disaster, but as a miracle maker. He'll be in his late 50s. Expect his retirement by mid-2010.
Petraeus has said publicly that he won't run for president. "I think that General Sherman had it right when he gave what is now commonly referred to as a Shermanesque response when asked a similar question," he told Chris Wallace last month. Don't believe him. Not many people can resist such the temptation of an out-of-power political party practically begging him or her to run for president as a conquering hero.
A Democratic president, in short, should expect that in four years, Petraeus is coming for her or him. So what's to be done?
Under no circumstances can Petraeus be fired. For one thing, the military remains wary of Democrats in general. Although the senior officer corps has mixed feelings about Petraeus -- his ambition is a bit off-putting to his peers -- it's going to be looking for Bill Clinton-style signs of disrespect or discomfort with the military. That's exactly how they'll interpret a Petraeus firing, and an untested president dealing with two wars can't afford the resulting uniformed acrimony. For another, the political ramifications of a newly elected Democratic president -- even riding a crest of either antiwar fervor or public exhaustion with the war -- firing a sainted general would leave Petraeus in the strongest possible position to mount a challenge.
Leaving Petraeus in Baghdad -- presuming that President Bush doesn't reassign him before leaving the White House -- isn't without risks, either. First, his extremely sophisticated cultivation of the press (Time nearly made him its Person of the Year) means that there's no shortage of reporters willing to print stories about how civilian politicians are tying the hands of the military in Iraq just when it needs maximum flexibility. Second, commanding Multinational Forces-Iraq doesn't carry a set term. Petraeus can submit his resignation any time he wants. The reason doesn't really matter. He can exit either during a time of quiet, when he can say that he's leaving on success, or during a time of chaos, when he can say that the politicians have stopped him from doing his job. Then, out of uniform, he's free to run for president.
That leaves an unconventional option. The president can give Petraeus a promotion he can't refuse. There are really only three that suit the bill: Petraeus can either become commander of all forces in the Middle East; NATO commander (as the Times reported may soon happen); or chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. While the chairman is on paper the military's senior officer, it may not be the right post for Petraeus, since the job is outside the military chain of command. It would be shrewder to give Petraeus one of the two most prestigious command assignments in the military as the final assignment of his career. (The military would probably see that as more respectful move, as well.) Putting Petraeus at Central Command would have an added benefit for a Democratic president: he would be tasked with overseeing a plan to draw troops down from Iraq, thereby making him complicit in the undoing of his chief political advantage. And there's another advantage to making Petraeus a regional commander: those jobs are five-year assignments. Should he prematurely resign his command to plan a presidential run, he'll both appear craven and be open to the charge of deserting his post in wartime. (As he would if he turned down any of the three assignments offered him.)
Naturally, none of this is foolproof. Predicting the outcome of the 2008 election is problematic. Gaming out the 2012 race is, admittedly, goofy. But the political danger to a Democratic president of a Petraeus Political Surge is real. Strategists might as well start planning accordingly. And if the president's aides don't like any of the listed anti-Petraeus options, there's always a Hail-Mary play: strike a deal with Jeb Bush to challenge Petraeus for the nomination. It's never too early to engineer a Surge of Dynastic Restoration.