The Petraeus Principle

What’s clear so far about the Petraeus CENTCOM announcement is that all anyone can do right now is speculate on what impact this will all have. But while answers will only come with time, the fundamental questions are shaping up pretty quickly. According to Abu Muqawama they boil down to how Gen. Petraeus’ experiences in Iraq are going to influence his regional vision in general, his approach to Iran in particular, and his ability to make detached decisions about how to distribute scarce resources between the two theaters of war now under his command. Tom Barnett, on the other hand, flips the formulation a bit and wonders how the added regional perspective will impact Gen. Petraeus’ approach to Iraq and Iran, although he worries about the fact that the DoD is now pretty much all “bad cop,” up and down the line, when it comes to Iran.

One thing that’s implied in AM’s remarks about Petraeus’ regional vision being shaped by the prism of Iraq, but that I’d draw out even more explicitly, is that his vision of the Iranians has been shaped by the prism of what amounts to a proxy war there. So whatever broader regional approach to Tehran he adopts can’t help but be conditioned by the fact that he has already been engaged in low-intensity warfare with them for the past year and a half. To use the language of Petraeus’ own COIN manual, his Iran narrative has begun as a war story. So either he’s capable of making a very significant pivot, or else the plotline is about to be expanded to a regional level (which, as Tom Barnett points out, does not necessarily mean a decisive attack on Iran but logically suggests one).

Meanwhile, some questions are being raised (Phil Carter here and Charlie from AM here) about Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno’s fit as commander of MNF-I. But I’m surprised that, so far, no one’s had the temerity to point out that compared to his CENTCOM predecessors, Gen. Petraeus’ credentials are underwhelming for such a strategically vital regional command. Admiral Fallon’s prior regional command experience was too deep to count. Gen. Abizaid did prior staff tours in the Office of the Army Chief of Staff, the Southern European Task Force, and the U.S. Army Europe HQ. Gen. Franks commanded the 3rd Army for three years prior to taking over CENTCOM, and Gen. Zinni was CENTCOM Deputy C-i-C for nine months before assuming the top spot.

The bulk of Petraeus’ experience, meanwhile, has been in operations and training (which is what you’d expect for someone who has demonstrated such tactical brilliance). Challenging as it is, Commander MNF-I is his broadest command to date. Now it could be that Petraeus is, in addition to being a tactical genius, a strategic genius as well. But a case could be made for the argument that, in leapfrogging Adm. Fallon through his personal relationship with President Bush, Petraeus has essentially served as de facto Commander of CENTCOM for the past year and a half. And in that time he has put the Iraq theater ahead of our broader regional interests, and according to many, ahead of the health of the Army.

Again, only time will tell. But so far, the only real qualification Petraeus seems to have for the job is to have offered President Bush a fortuitous tactical approach that coincided perfectly with Bush’s political needs.

Update: Hampton has a different view.

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