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A soldier, a scholar and also a politician

Petraeus could be the Iraq war's Grant, or he could be Westmoreland.

September 09, 2007|Julian E. Barnes | Times Staff Writer

Nearly a year ago, staff officers told Gen. David H. Petraeus that they couldn't help but notice the striking similarities between his situation and one of the most famous moments in U.S. military history.

They told Petraeus -- then in charge of Ft. Leavenworth in Kansas, and soon to take over as U.S. commander in Iraq -- that he had the opportunity to turn the war around and thereby repeat the achievement of Ulysses S. Grant, who rescued the flagging fortunes of the Union army in the Civil War.

"We talked to him about it before he left Leavenworth -- that he was in a position like Grant was," said an officer who worked with Petraeus.

Now eight months into his command in Iraq, Petraeus faces a pivotal moment.

On Monday, as President Bush has been promising for months, Petraeus will appear before Congress to offer his assessment of the war's progress. He will bring to the witness table not only months of his observations, but years of experience carefully honing what many say are uncommon skills as a communicator and soldier, but especially as a politician.

Petraeus may yet turn out to be the Ulysses Grant of the Iraq war. But his upcoming appearance in Washington has other historical echoes, involving a military leader to whom history has been far less kind.

Forty years ago, Army Gen. William C. Westmoreland was brought to Washington in an effort to shore up public support for the Vietnam War. In November 1967, at the behest of President Lyndon B. Johnson, Westmoreland left Saigon to appear before Congress, deliver speeches and take questions from the press. His command later ended amid the turmoil of public debate about the wisdom of the war.

" '67 was the year you really saw erosion of public support starting, and that is why Johnson brings Westmoreland back, because he senses the public is getting tired," said Mark Moyar, a military historian and author of a book about the Vietnam War, "Triumph Forsaken."

"Westmoreland comes back and says progress is being made and there is light at the end of the tunnel," Moyar said. Westmoreland's comments in Washington led some to accuse him of being a political pawn of the White House, a charge that has begun to be leveled at Petraeus.

It may take years for history to judge whether Petraeus is a Grant or a Westmoreland. But it is clear today that Petraeus is perhaps uniquely suited for the challenge he faces Monday.

'A true intellect'

For much of his Army career, Petraeus was known best for his staff work, for his Washington savvy and for his service to a long list of important generals. But his reputation grew during the first phase of the Iraq war, when Petraeus also proved himself one of the most successful and adaptable division commanders in the U.S. military.

"Petraeus is a true intellect, perhaps the purest soldier-scholar there is," said Lt. Col. John Nagl, one of the Army's top experts on fighting insurgencies.

When Petraeus finished his first Iraq tour in 2005, making his name as a division commander and then overseeing the training of the Iraqi military, he went to Ft. Leavenworth, home of a key Army training operation called the Combined Arms Center.

Petraeus was able to use the Ft. Leavenworth position, once considered something of a backwater post, to focus Army attention on counterinsurgency -- essentially getting the force ready to execute the strategy he would bring to Iraq in 2007.

For instance, Petraeus overhauled the curriculum of Army schools to ensure that Army majors were trained in counterinsurgency operations. He remade the Army's journal, Military Review, into a periodical focused on the best ways to fight nontraditional wars.

Perhaps most important, Petraeus ordered a complete rewriting of the Army's counterinsurgency manual. The manual, overseen by Petraeus, is considered the most important piece of Army doctrine in two decades, officers said.

"He was getting the Army focused on not only what he saw as the most likely form of war in the future, but also the kind of war we were fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan," Nagl said.

So from the relative obscurity of Ft. Leavenworth, officers say, Petraeus managed to spark an "intellectual revitalization" of the Army.

"He was very clear in his own mind: This fight was very different than what we had done in the past," said the officer who worked with Petraeus at Ft. Leavenworth, who discussed Petraeus' thinking on the condition of anonymity. "And he pulled all of the levers at Leavenworth to get the Army ready."

From Ft. Leavenworth, Petraeus also helped develop the troop-buildup strategy that Bush publicly embraced eight months ago. Petraeus was given the chance to refine and execute the strategy when he succeeded Army Gen. George W. Casey Jr. as the top commander in Iraq in February.

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