Commentary Magazine


RE: A Good Move. Now…

Jennifer, while agreeing with much of what you have to say about the McChrystal-Petraeus transition, I have to disagree with your reader who says, “Generals should only talk to their troops.” Perhaps that was once true; it is certainly no longer true. A general who neglects his public-outreach function is guilty of dereliction of duty. Indeed, that was part of the reason why General George Casey was unsuccessful in Iraq; he was hunkered down in Baghdad and he was not communicating effectively with people either in Iraq or in the United States to explain and defend his strategy.

For that matter, by neglecting the news media, a senior general cannot effectively communicate with his own troops. Like it or not, one of the most effective ways to reach an organization of hundreds of thousands of individuals is through the mass media.

Luckily, General Petraeus is keenly aware of the need to engage in strategic communication, which involves opening up the battlefield to the news media and academic experts and opening up the commander to interviews. This has made him somewhat controversial within the army, which has a traditional disdain for the news media — an attitude that will only be reinforced by the fallout over the Rolling Stone interview. It is significant, however, that Petraeus has never gotten into that kind of trouble, notwithstanding all the interviews he has given over the years. And he hasn’t managed to stay out of trouble by uttering platitudes or ridiculously rosy predictions. He has a rare gift for conveying sincerity without stepping over the line or making inappropriate and indiscreet comments of the kind McChrystal and his staff made. That is a skill that all successful generals must cultivate in the Information Age. “No comment” is simply no longer an option.