There were no real surprises on Capitol Hill when General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker showed up yesterday to present their reports. This was due, in large part, to the success that Petraeus had in laying the groundwork for their much-anticipated visit. He is an unusually open military commander who is not suspicious of journalists or legislators or scholars intruding in his “battlespace.” In fact he does everything possible to facilitate such visits. (I am one of many who is grateful to him for his hospitality.)
That marks a sharp a contrast with the previous senior U.S. commander in Iraq, General George Casey, who tended to view public relations as a second-order concern. Petraeus realizes that no modern commander can have the luxury of ignoring public opinion, either at home or around the world, so he has been careful to “shape” the public opinion climate prior to his Washington appearance.
This does not mean, I hasten to add, that he is engaging in lying or spinning, as charged by some irresponsible critics. He is not peddling propaganda. He realizes that any lie would be exposed quickly and that the best interests of the mission dictate that he get the whole truth out to the public. Thus, he has been as open and accommodating to skeptics of the “surge”—e.g., Anthony Cordesmen and Ken Pollack—as he has been to supporters of the surge, such as Fred Kagan and me. And he has taken steps to improve the access of the news media to the battlefield, knowing that reporters will deliver a more nuanced and accurate picture from the frontlines.
So, when the surge started making progress this summer, the American public didn’t have to rely on what the White House said to figure out what was going on. There were a larger number of independent observers who have traveled the battlefield extensively to provide an unbiased picture of what’s gone right, as well as what’s still going wrong.
Whatever the final outcome, officers in the future would be well advised to study Petraeus’s approach as a textbook example of 21st century “information operations.”