By Robert D. Kaplan
Chief Geopolitical Analyst
Now everyone knows that CIA Director David Petraeus was unfaithful to his wife and that former top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan Gen. Stanley McChrystal made improper remarks to a journalist. Therefore, these two Army generals were removed from their jobs — Petraeus recently and McChrystal two years ago — and publicly humiliated.
Let me add some perspective regarding the careers of these two men.
In December 2006, just before Petraeus took command of all U.S. forces in Iraq and when McChrystal was in charge of counterterrorism there, Baghdad was sustaining 140 suicide bombs per month, with dozens killed in many attacks. In December 2007, largely because of the efforts of both men, that figure was reduced to five per month. The civilian lives saved as a consequence numbered in the thousands or tens of thousands per year. That's real humanitarianism — unlike the faux humanitarianism often heard at international meetings.
Now let me add some perspective on three other Army generals, who had clean public records and thus were never humiliated to nearly the same extent by the media: Tommy Franks, Ricardo Sanchez and George Casey. According to Thomas E. Ricks' new book, The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today, among other sources, Franks did not plan sufficiently for the post-invasion stabilization of Iraq, Sanchez allowed an insurgency to start and mushroom there and Casey allowed that insurgency to continue without taking creative countermeasures. Franks and Sanchez were arguably guilty of incompetence according to Ricks and others, and Casey was by almost all accounts a mediocrity in over his head as commander in Baghdad. The 140 suicide bombs per month in Baghdad with which Petraeus and McChrystal had to contend were the product of the failed generalships of Franks, Sanchez and Casey.
Petraeus, by contrast, conceived (with help from the Marines) of an alternative kind of war (counterinsurgency), implemented it in the midst of an ongoing conflict and taught his army how to employ it. In the process, he made better use of McChrystal's skills than had previous American commanders. As a consequence, with the arguable exceptions of generals Matthew Ridgway in Korea and Creighton Abrams in Vietnam, Petraeus ranks as perhaps the greatest American Army general since George Marshall and Dwight Eisenhower in World War II.
The result: Petraeus was brought down by what, according to the New York Times, might well have been an invasion of privacy by the FBI, even as McChrystal had his reputation irreparably damaged by an aggressive Rolling Stone reporter.
In other words, we erect gods and we get — sorry — human beings. Not only that, we get human beings under severe stress who are, by nature of their chemistry and circumstances, imperfect.
Let's examine the stress that Petraeus and McChrystal were under in the course of their careers. Whereas the Greatest Generation was on the whole deployed in a war theater for less than three years, Petraeus and McChrystal were deployed longer in a cumulative sense: almost half a decade when you include visits to the region, in addition to their deployments. Moreover, because they were deployed in Muslim countries, they had no access to even an occasional glass of beer on base. Eisenhower spent the war in London allegedly with a mistress — his chauffeur and secretary, Kay Summersby. That was not frowned upon.
What should concern us regarding Petraeus was the possibility of a security breach; his private life should be, well, private — the Army code of conduct notwithstanding. What should have outraged us about the McChrystal affair was the very fact of the removal of a brilliant commander because he had dropped his guard with a reporter from a left-wing journal.
Here's when you should ask, What would Abraham Lincoln have done? When told that Gen. Ulysses S. Grant drank alcohol to excess, Lincoln remarked: "Find out what Grant drinks and send a barrel of it to my other generals." Lincoln was not interested in personal foibles in this case; he was only interested in winning a war. Our leaders and public should be, too. Gen. George McClellan was disloyal to Lincoln, but Lincoln might have forgiven McClellan even that if the general could have fought better than he did.
History is replete with the imperfections of great and extremely competent men. Richard Nixon made derogatory remarks about blacks and Jews; he was also a brilliant strategist who reopened America's relations with communist China, leveraged that relationship to counter the Soviet Union and re-established relations with Egypt and Syria after saving Israel with arms deliveries during the Yom Kippur War. Jimmy Carter, by contrast, was a morally perfect man. He was also the president under whose watch Nicaragua and Ethiopia were substantially lost to the West — with eventual catastrophic consequences for human rights in the case of Ethiopia. Also under Carter's watch the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, and a U. S. military operation in Iran went down in failure. The late Richard Holbrooke could be on a personal level extremely unpleasant, as I myself experienced close-up. He was also a brilliant diplomat who ended a war in the Balkans.
The issue here is not personalities. It is power. In a world of power and geopolitics, the best practitioners — whether a Petraeus or a McChrystal or a Nixon or a Holbrooke — are men who can get things done. Men who can get things done have the ability to take over a room, to force all the attention on themselves, give orders and have them actually carried out. And the orders they give are creative, morally based and well thought-through.
My purpose here is not to justify what Petraeus and McChrystal did. I am only saying that if the United States is to perform credibly as a great power it does not have the luxury to be ruled by the sensationalist standards of the media, in which incidents involving personal shortcomings are turned into soap operas. In such cases, assuming the person is not a serial offender in a way that impairs his professional competence, the country must forgive in order to allow its most able agents of authority to get on with the job.
Geopolitics — the battle of space and power — focuses on impersonal forces like geography, demography, economics and technology. But the actors in all cases are individuals. Individuals do matter. The Iraq War may well have been a mistake, but it was a mistake made worse by bad generalship and made better later on by good generalship — that of Petraeus and McChrystal.
Be careful about demanding moral perfection from our leaders, civilian and military. In our personal lives we may be governed by a private morality in which someone like Petraeus can be found wanting. But in the public life of a nation, leaders must be judged by what they accomplish on behalf of the citizenry as a whole: that is, what they accomplish for the greater good. Geopolitics is a world governed by a morality of public results rather than a morality of private intentions. For if it is moral perfection that you want, you'll often get mediocrity and occasional incompetence as a result.