The List

Broken Record

David Petraeus had critics before scandal struck -- they just tended to fly under the radar.

In the wake of David Petraeus' resignation as CIA director -- and the extramarital affair that precipitated it -- the press has been engaged in a great deal of soul-searching about its role in burnishing the general's formidable legacy in the years since he appeared on a 2004 cover of Newsweek alongside the question, "Can This Man Save Iraq?"

"Like many in the press, nearly every national politician, and lots of members of Petraeus' brain trust over the years, I played a role in the creation of the legend around David Petraeus," Wired's Spencer Ackerman reflected over the weekend. "The biggest irony surrounding Petraeus' unexpected downfall is that he became a casualty of the very publicity machine he cultivated to portray him as superhuman."

Yes, Petraeus received remarkably favorable reviews from the press and from politicians on both sides of the aisle -- particularly after spearheading the 2007 U.S. troop surge in Iraq and revamping and reviving the military's counterinsurgency doctrine. But when it came to his handling of Iraq, Afghanistan, and the media, Petraeus had his detractors as well. In case you missed it amid the admiring coverage of the former four-star general in recent years, here's a look at what some of his most vocal critics had to say.

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Petraeus is still lauded as the poster boy for Iraq -- the general that inherited a broken war in 2007 and turned it around in a matter of months. But beneath Petraeus' carefully constructed public image there have always been blemishes, just as there have always been quiet critics of the man journalist Peter Bergen described this week as the "most effective American military commander since Eisenhower."

Petraeus' first assignment after the 2003 invasion of Iraq was overseeing the occupation of Mosul, and his second was attempting to reform the disbanded Iraqi army. The Bush administration heralded both missions as unqualified successes, but neither was as clean as the rosy press coverage suggested. According to an anonymous diplomat quoted in the Guardian in 2007, Mosul "basically collapsed" after Petraeus left and the soldiers he trained were "nowhere to be seen." Petraeus, the diplomat continued, was the "Teflon general."

Around the same time, the former U.S. diplomat Peter Galbraith, writing in the New York Review of Books, took Petraeus to task for ignoring warnings from America's Kurdish allies about appointments he made to Mosul's local government. "A few months after he left the city," Galbraith recalled, "the Petraeus-appointed local police commander defected to the insurgency while the Sunni Arab police handed their weapons and uniforms over en masse to the insurgents."

Even the general's signature counterinsurgency doctrine, which was widely credited with reducing sectarian violence in Iraq after 2007, encountered early criticism from Army Col. Gian Gentile, an Iraq veteran who teaches at West Point. Counterinsurgency, he wrote in World Affairs Journal in 2008, was an "over-hyped shift in emphasis that, on the one hand, will not necessarily yield an American victory in Iraq, but on the other might well leave the United States Army crippled in future wars."

It's a criticism that must have rung true for those involved in America's other war, the severely under-resourced campaign in Afghanistan that had been pushed to the backburner after the Iraqi invasion in 2003. Whatever else might be said about Petraeus' strategy in Iraq, some argue it made victory in Afghanistan that much more unlikely given finite U.S. military resources. As Bob Woodward put it in Obama's Wars, "This was a zero-sum game."

Joshua Hutcheson/U.S. Army via Getty Images


The rare bipartisan support Petraeus earned with the success of the surge in Iraq was on full display in the summer of 2010, when President Barack Obama tapped him to replace Gen. Stanley McChrystal as the top commander in Afghanistan. The Senate confirmed Petraeus by a vote of 99 to 0 ("Is Gen. David Petraeus too big to fail?" a Politico headline inquired at the time).

But Petraeus' opponents didn't wait in the shadows for long. A month into the general's tenure, the former military officer Ralph Peters was already arguing that counterinsurgency would not work in Afghanistan like it did in Iraq, and that Petraeus should instead pursue the narrower counterterrorism strategy advocated by Vice President Joe Biden. (Some would say that's exactly what he did.)

As the architect of Obama's retooled "war of necessity," Petraeus had to fend off critics ranging from Rep. Dennis Kucinich (R-OH) to Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who reportedly shocked the military leader by calling on the United States to reduce military operations and end night raids in the country. Human rights groups criticized Petraeus' plan to arm Afghan villagers while military analyst Bing West maintained that the United States had not committed enough troops to Afghanistan to make counterinsurgency work, and that the strategy actually undermined soldiers by asking them to be both fighters and nation-builders.

Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, the former British ambassador to Afghanistan, issued a particularly scathing assessment of Petraeus' record in the spring of 2011. "He has increased the violence, trebled the number of specialforces raids by British, American, Dutch and Australian special forces going out killing Taliban commanders, and there has been a lot more rather regrettable boasting from the military about the body count," Cowper-Coles asserted. By the time Petraeus left his post that summer, the intelligence community was much more pessimistic than the Pentagon about the extent to which the United States had weakened the Taliban and stabilized Afghanistan, and a flurry of articles about the grim fate awaiting Afghanistan after the U.S. withdrawal in 2014 followed.

"President Barack Obama's decision to withdraw troops from Afghanistan signals the beginning of the end for the ambitious counterinsurgency strategy that Army Gen. David Petraeus designed and has single-mindedly pursued in Iraq and Afghanistan," the Huffington Post's David Wood wrote in June 2011. The journalist Michael Hastings was much harsher in a Rolling Stone book review. "Petraeus didn't win in Afghanistan -- unless one defines winning [in] the Charlie Sheen sense of the word," he wrote. "Rather, he proposed and followed a counterinsurgency strategy that was expensive, bloody, and inconclusive." Iraq, he added, "remains mired in brutal civil strife."

Paul J. Richards-Pool/Getty Images


The revelations about Petraeus' affair have prompted many people to question the general's fervent outreach to the media -- and the media's eagerness to return the favor. But some journalists were ahead of their time. In an article on Petraeus for the New Statesman back in 2010, Mehdi Hasan noted that "[t]he Congressional and media hawks in the United States have acquiesced in the rise and political empowerment of a new cadre of generals and commanders committed to pushing policies -- such as so-called small wars, based on counter-insurgency principles -- that the US public has usually been sceptical of." In the Daily Beast, Matt Yglesias argued that Petraeus' genius lay in lowering expectations. In Iraq, Yglesias explained, the military leader had achieved a "largely a postmodern victory, a triumph of spin, narrative formation, and political psychology that ‘succeeded' largely in extricating the country from a toxic political deadlock."

Perhaps the most colorful critique came a year later, when Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-CA) quoted Michael Hastings' Charlie Sheen analogy on the House floor. "General Petraeus is giving us the Charlie Sheen counter-insurgency strategy, which is to give exclusive interviews to every major network, and to keep saying ‘we're winning,' and hope the public actually agrees with you," she declared.

This time around, Petraeus isn't going anywhere near a camera.

TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images

The List

Back to Work

7 things the U.N. can finally get around to doing now that the U.S. election is over.

If you felt your life was on hold the past week or so, as the U.S. election entered its final stretch, take comfort -- so was the rest of the world, at least at the United Nations. The U.S. political campaign placed a number of U.N. foreign-policy priorities, including Afghanistan, Syria, and Iran, on the backburner.

But within hours of President Barack Obama's reelection, the United States had begun to turn its attention to deferred business, agreeing Wednesday, for instance, to set a date for resumption of negotiations on the establishment of a new arms trade treaty.

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, meanwhile, used his congratulatory message to President Obama to draw Washington's attention to four key priorities -- ending the bloodshed in Syria, restarting the Middle East peace process, promoting sustainable development, and tackling climate change -- requiring greater American engagement.

There are a number of areas, including arms control and possibly climate change, where the administration may show renewed vigor in a second term, according to U.N. observers. But they cautioned that movement on a second-term agenda would start slow, given the months it will likely take to put a new foreign policy team in place. The king, said one observer, will be the same, but the royal court will be new.

The administration will face the first test of its standing at the United Nations on Monday, when it will participate in its first competitive election for a seat on the Human Rights Council, facing off with Germany, Greece, Ireland, and Sweden for three Western spots on the U.N.'s main rights body. Washington has been aggressively campaigning for the post, seeking to avert an embarrassing loss. "People are nervous about it; they don't think it in the bag," said one U.N.-based source.

Observers said they did not foresee the administration pursuing a particularly ambitious agenda at the United Nations. Richard Gowan, an expert on the United Nations at New York University's Center on International Cooperation, said he saw little likelihood that the U.S. would move, for instance, to join the International Criminal Court, push for ratification of the Comprehensive [Nuclear] Test Ban Treaty, or press for expansion of the U.N. Security Council.  "Just as Obama was burdened with excessive expectations at the start of his first term I think quite a lot of leaders may have excessive expectations of what he will do now that he is reelected," Gowan said.

So, what will a second term Obama administration pull off the backburner and pursue with renewed vigor?

A new U.N. ambassador?

A lot of media attention has focused on the horserace for U.S. secretary of state between Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair John Kerry, (D-MA). But there has been little speculation about who would replace Rice at the United Nations if she moves on to bigger things.

The White House has already begun considering at least two new candidates for the top U.N. job, including Samantha Power, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author who oversees U.N. policy at the White House, and Eileen Donahoe, the U.S. ambassador to the Human Rights Council, according to a source close to the Obama administration.

But that race may have to be put on hold until Obama picks a successor to Hillary Clinton, who plans to step down after the transition. And who knows, maybe Rice will be sticking around for a little while longer.

Several weeks ago, Rice appeared to be the front-runner, but her prospects have reportedly diminished since her public account of the terrorist attack on the Libyan consulate in Benghazi as a spontaneous reaction to an anti-Islamic video came under fire, raising the prospects of a contentious Senate confirmation hearing.

Post-election speculation has been all over the map, with the New York Times citing one administration characterizing Rice as "crippled" while Bloomberg News claimed she had emerged as the odds-on favorite. If Obama denies her the top diplomatic post, what else could he offer her that would be better than her current gig? Current U.S. National Security Advisor Thomas Donilon is said to want to remain in his job.

The arms trade treaty

In July, the United States derailed U.N. negotiations on a landmark treaty regulating the $70 billion global arms trade, triggering charges by arms control advocates that it feared support for the pact would weaken President Obama's standing in U.S. presidential elections. The administration, which then claimed it needed more time to review the draft treaty, voted Wednesday alongside other major arms exporters, Britain, China, France, and Germany to begin talks on a treaty in March. (The vote was initially scheduled before the U.S. election, but was rescheduled after Superstorm Sandy led to the U.N.'s temporary closure.)

The move sparked protests from the American gun lobby, which portrayed the vote as a threat to the Second Amendment, which enshrines the right of gun ownership in the United States. But supporters of the treaty said it would not infringe on the Second Amendment, instead arguing that it would constrain the unregulated sale of weapons that fuel conflicts around the world. "This treaty could be a signature accomplishment for the administration at the United Nations within coming months," said Suzanne Nossel, the president of Amnesty International USA. "The fact that they've taken this position will enable them to lead on this issue."


The civil war in Syria will continue to represent one the greatest security challenges for the United States at the United Nations, one which they may not be able to resolve here. There are no signs at this point that the American presidential election will make Russia any more willing to allow the United States and its Western partners to use the Security Council to apply pressure on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down.

For the time being, there are divergent tracks to addressing the crisis: one military, and the other diplomatic. Earlier this week, Britain's Foreign Secretary William Hague announced that Britain would establish contacts with leaders of the armed opposition. "There is an opportunity for Britain, for America, for Saudi Arabia, Jordan and like-minded allies to come together and try to help shape the opposition, outside Syria and inside Syria, and try to help them achieve their goal, which is our goal of a Syria without Assad." The U.N.-Arab League special representative, Lakhdar Brahimi, meanwhile, has been pursuing a negotiated settlement, and is trying to convince the United States and Russia to back a negotiated settlement that would lead to a transitional government, but one that remains unclear about the fate of the Syrian president. Assad, for his part, made it perfectly clear in an interview with Russia Today, saying that he intends to "live and die" in Syria.

Palestinian statehood

The Obama administration will continue to press Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas to drop his plan to seek recognition for Palestine as a state in the U.N. General Assembly, a move that would further damage U.S. Palestinian relations with the United States. This time around, the United States will be able to count on support from its key European allies, including Britain and France, who have been urging the Palestinians to give the new administration time to put a new team in place.

Hussein Ibish, a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine, said he suspects the Palestinian leader will force the issue and push for a General Assembly vote elevating Palestine to a non U.N.-member state. But he has urged Washington and Israel not to react too harshly to a move he sees as a largely symbolic gesture, albeit a "provocative symbolic gesture," on the grounds that punishing the Palestinian Authority will strengthen the hand of Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist movement, that is being courted by Egypt, Qatar, and Turkey. "This is bad for America," he said. "Both the Palestinian Authority and Washington need to repair their relations; the Palestinian Authority, because it's essential for their survival; and Washington, because otherwise, it will have to deal with bearded guys with Qurans." 


The Obama administration has been keen to pursue a peace deal between the Afghan government and the Taliban before the withdrawal of U.S. forces and its NATO allies from the country at the end of 2014. But the American presidential election has made it tough for the Obama administration to carry through on its pledge to release several Taliban members from Guantanamo Bay detention center as a goodwill measure. In March, Taliban negotiators reportedly broke off talks with the United States, complaining that the United States was not serious about striking a deal.

Scott Smith, an expert on Afghanistan at the United States Institute of Peace, said he expects the Americans to try to revive talks, but that the failure of the previous round of talks will make it more difficult to draw the Taliban back to the table. ""What was intended to be a confidence building effort ended up eroding confidence," said Smith. "Everybody understood nothing was going to happen till after the election. But is the ball in our court or in the Taliban's court?"


For the time being, Israel and Iran appear to have stepped back from the brink of nuclear war. At the United Nations, China and Russia have made it clear that they will not approve another round of economic sanctions against Iran. And prospects for diplomatic progress with Iran at the U.N. seem pretty distant. Before the election, the New York Times reported that the United States and Iran had agreed in principle to start one-on-one negotiations over Tehran's nuclear program. The White House quickly denied the report. But the story is continuing to fuel rumors that Washington may pursue direct contacts with Tehran.


Rwanda's election to the Security Council presents a thorny new problem for the United States. A close American ally, Rwanda has come under sharp criticism for its alleged role in sponsoring and arming the M23 mutineers in the neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo. Rwanda has denied a role in sponsoring the mutiny. Nevertheless, the United States is expected to face intense pressure from human rights advocates to pressure Rwanda to cease its military operations in eastern Congo.  "We would expect the United States to finally raise the pressure on Rwanda to stop its support for the M23," said Philippe Bolopion, the U.N. representative for Human Rights Watch. "They should make crystal clear to them that being on the Security Council starting on January 1 will not give them a free pass to continue supporting an abusive rebel group in a neighboring country."