In Baghdad on September 16, Dave Petraeus, the most successful American
general in more than a half-century, passed the flag to his former
deputy, Gen. Ray Odierno. It was a milestone not only in our great
endeavor in Iraq, but in the 5,000-year history of the lands watered by
the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.
Petraeus moved up to take over our Central Command, or CENTCOM,
where he faces the gritty challenges of the world's strategic junkyard,
the greater Middle East: No rest for the victor. But we can pause to consider what he achieved:
Two years ago, many Americans believed Iraq was hopeless.
Personally, I'd begun to despair of the administration ever fighting to
win. Without a sharp change in policy and practice, our effort to bring
democracy to a wretched population would end by discrediting democracy
and unjustly humiliating our military.
In "politics above country" Washington, partisan Democrats celebrated
our impending defeat, salivating over American casualties as
vote-getters. Repeatedly, they sought to deny our troops the resources
they needed to fight and survive.
Then, in a very dark hour, two things happened. Realizing - at last
- that former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had failed him, our
president backed a hail-Mary-pass troop surge to give Iraq one last
chance. And he chose a new commander, Petraeus.
We all know what happened: Iraq turned around with a speed that bewildered the experts.
In the 19 months of the Petraeus era, Iraq evolved from a bloody
landscape sliding toward civil war to a land of hope. Urban combat and
a literal reign of terror have been replaced by the spreading rule of
law, a blossoming economy, LA-quality traffic jams - and the political
squabbling that accompanies democracy.
As Petraeus is always the first to note, much remains to be done
and much could still go wrong. But every single trend line has turned
positive. Al Qaeda's grip has been broken. (It can still set off bombs,
but can no longer set itself up as a champion of Sunni Muslims.) Our
troops are coming home at a steady pace. And (dare one say it?) we're winning.
That last point's a sore one. Scrupulously avoiding any statement
or action that played politics, Petraeus nonetheless changed the terms
of our presidential election.
A year ago, the big issue was Iraq, which Sen. Barack Obama
insisted remained a disaster. Now the campaign is a contest of
qualifications - and character.
Of course, Petraeus had a lot of help - he's always the first to
point out that a successful command is a collective achievement. But
the huffy claims that it was this, that or the other thing that
"really" brought about positive change in Iraq fail to grasp what
Petraeus got from the start: There's never a single solution to an insurgency.
Yes, a handful of savvy US officers had begun to grasp the
opportunity to "flip" the Sunni tribes of Anbar to our side even before
Petraeus took command. But Petraeus recognized a greater potential and
expanded the effort dramatically: He turned a promising local business
into a nationwide franchise.
Yes, the surge gave Petraeus more flexibility than his predecessors
had. But the critical difference was that he employed our troops
differently, sending them into neighborhoods to stay and
provide security for the people. And he exploited the surge's
psychological effect - convincing allies and enemies alike that we
weren't about to quit. Without that reassurance, the turnaround
wouldn't have happened.
And yes, we were even lucky in the extremism and cruelty of our
enemies - both al Qaeda's butchers and Muqtada al Sadr's gangsters.
They quickly wore out whatever welcome they had among the people.
Yes, Petraeus assumed command at a fortunate time, but Napoleon
wanted lucky generals for good reasons. And opportunities are worthless
Always competent in his earlier career, Petraeus rose to greatness
over the last two years. Dismissed by a few jealous peers as a
"Pentagon prince," he turned out to be the "fightin'est" general we
On the home front, the defeat-is-virtuous crowd had talked
themselves into believing they were getting a Gandhi; instead, we got a
Grant. No previous US commander in Iraq remotely approached Petraeus'
relentless determination to track down and kill the enemy's senior
leaders. (Think that didn't make a difference?)
Petraeus now stands in a long line of great captains who fought in
Mesopotamia, a line stretching back past Alexander the Great to the
conquering kings who haunt the Old Testament. Yet there's a crucial
difference in the case of this American warrior: He didn't come to
conquer, but to offer freedom.
Appalled by our military's success, the media played down
the change-of-command ceremony. But history will give Petraeus
his due. Meanwhile, a few words from a great poet will serve for this
magnificent general who now turns to Afghanistan: "Not fare well, but