Commentary Magazine


General Petraeus’s Staff Made Me Do It

Since Friday, Joe Klein has written two more posts about me (here and here) over at his blog at Time. He is enraged at me for my responses to some of Tom Ricks’s arguments. In his latest outburst Klein writes that, to the extent that I was right in supporting the new counterinsurgency plan in Iraq in 2007, I was only obeying “an involuntary lizard reflex.” But he, on the other hand, was wrong about the surge because he had doubts planted by “long conversations with members of the Petraeus staff.”

This is rich: Klein blames his fierce opposition to the surge not on his own intellectual or analytical failures, but on General Petraeus’s staff. The implication is that Joe would have arrived at the right conclusion if left on his own; but in the course of his reporting, he was dissuaded from supporting the surge because of conversations with key people who worked for the key architect of the surge. Next time, Klein might be wiser to simply admit he was wrong and let it go at that.

It’s hard to know what would drive a person like Joe to self-parody. Perhaps Klein, who can be a fine political reporter, somewhere along the way decided he was a deep foreign policy thinker. But his efforts at being a Kissingerian figure keep crashing against his own limitations, as well as his erratic writings and analyses.

On one of the most consequential policy matters of our time, the surge, Klein was as wrong as wrong can be. If we had followed his recommendations, Iraq would have become a scene of mass death and possibly genocide. Militant Islam would have won its most important victory. Iran would have been immensely strengthened. American credibility would have been demolished. And more. None of us can know whether the effort in Iraq will eventually succeed or not; the challenges are still considerable. But we do know that if that we had followed Klein’s counsel on the surge, the Iraq war would have failed and rivers of blood would have followed.

It’s important to add two points. First, it’s not as if Klein supported the surge but thought that, despite being the best option, it still might fail. Rather, he ridiculed the idea of the surge. On April 5, 2007, for example, Klein wrote this:

Never was Bush’s adolescent petulance more obvious than in his decision to ignore the Baker-Hamilton report and move in the exact opposite direction: adding troops and employing counterinsurgency tactics inappropriate to the situation on the ground. “There was no way he was going to accept [its findings] once the press began to portray the report as Daddy’s friends coming to the rescue,” a member of the Baker-Hamilton commission told me. As with Bush’s invasion of Iraq, the decision to surge was made unilaterally, without adequate respect for history or military doctrine.

Democrats in Congress, of course, went well beyond ridicule and tried to hobble the effort by engaging in policies that would undermine the surge’s odds of success. Yet Klein was not only missing in action when it came to holding key Democrats to account; he was supportive of their destructive efforts. Does he blame that on Petraeus’s staff as well?

In his post, Klein writes, “Key members of the team opposed the operation, including Petraeus’s top counterinsurgency adviser David Kilcullen and others, whose names will remain private because our conversations were.” Mr. Kilcullen can answer for himself whether he, like Klein, was mocking the surge as idiotic at the very time it was being implemented. But I did find interesting a recent interview with Kilcullen, in which he said:

Our biggest problem during the surge was a hostile American Congress. They could have killed the thing. There was really nobody except [Senators] McCain and Lieberman arguing for a continued commitment. So I don’t fault President Bush for pushing General Petraeus forward. I think what he was trying to do was to find a figure with sufficient credibility to restore hope within Congress and to gain a measure of support for the effort from the U.S. domestic population.

And when asked if the U.S. military took too long to change course in Iraq , Kilcullen responded:

I think it took them a historically standard period of time. In Vietnam it took three to four years to reorient. In Malaya the British took about the same amount of time. In Northern Ireland they took longer. The British in Iraq took longer than the Americans in Iraq . And again, it was Petraeus. . . . He put forward this whole change movement within the military. We were almost like insurgents within the U.S. government. My marker of success is that when I first arrived, we had to talk in whispers about stuff that is now considered commonplace. The conventional wisdom now was totally unorthodox in ’04, ’05. [emphasis added]

Let’s just say that David Kilcullen’s rhetoric sounds significantly different from Klein’s.

Second, it’s useful to remind people that Klein told the late Tim Russert (on February 22, 2003) that embarking on the Iraq war was probably the right decision — even though years later Klein, perhaps hoping to distance himself from such compromising comments, referred to the war as “the stupidest foreign policy decision ever made by an American president.” So by his own account, Klein supported both the stupidest foreign policy decision ever made by an American president and also passionately opposed a surge that has, he now concedes, “succeeded beyond our wildest dreams.”

I don’t think Klein should be punished for any of this; I do, however, think he should cease writing as if his utterances came from Mt. Sinai. It’s also reasonable to ask whether, based on his track record, Klein has written anything on Iraq that commends his commentary to the rest of us. Perhaps he should stick to writing on urban affairs.

Joe cannot stand the fact that he was wrong on the surge and has been called out on it; he therefore feels he must try to explain it away. Blaming his errors on General Petraeus’s staff ranks among the most creative explanations one could resort to. That Klein did so tells you almost everything you need to know.

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