What does it mean to honor a man who made his name at the helm of our generation’s greatest human catastrophes? Is it, as Duke political scientist Peter Feaver fawns, to congratulate “one of the most celebrated military leaders of our time,” gifted with “strategic vision”? Who, exactly, amid the slow implosion of Iraq and Afghanistan, the dull hum of cruise missiles lobbed toward nameless villagers across the Global South, the countless dead and dying in a regional, sectarian war arguably fomented by David Petraeus, is celebrating?
“Perception,” Petraeus emphasized in his 1987 Princeton dissertation, is what's important. “What policymakers believe to have taken place in any particular case is what matters—more than what actually occurred.”
So it goes, after countless high-profile hagiographies—by “journalists” that were always “embedded,” the last one extramaritally bedded, ending his career— that Duke has become the latest victim of Petraeus’s hollow game. When he visits to speak on September 11, he will foremost manage perceptions, recruiting for what The Guardian editor Spencer Ackerman calls “the cult of David Petraeus.” Peter Feaver is one of its high priests. Looking at Petraeus’s record in human terms, however, makes it clear the ex-general is more fit to stand trial than on any stage.
The famed Iraq war troop surge of 2007 was Petraeus’s first great media breakthrough. The New York Times celebrated the strategy that allegedly “helped turn the tide in Iraq.” In it, Petraeus took the Shia side in a vicious sectarian civil war that left over 800 Americans and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis dead. The policy was in human terms a disaster, leading to a Shia-led autocracy that’s currently supporting the Syrian government by allowing the transfer of arms and fighters across its borders while repressing its own Sunni population. Sectarian massacres that broke out after the initial invasion continue unabated. The United Nations estimates July 2013 was Iraq’s deadliest month in five years, with a death toll of over 1,000. As Middle East scholar Juan Cole notes, “the only reason that they didn’t have to leave on helicopters suddenly at the end was because the Shiites ethnically cleansed the Sunnis.”
The time-bomb set, Petraeus left for Kabul. In 2009, he manipulated the White House into a similar escalation in Afghanistan by waging a leak campaign in the press and calling up columnists to “box” the President in, warning his staff that the White House was “f***ing” with the wrong guy. He would, after all, prove willing to work alongside suspected Afghan drug lords and torturers like Abdul Razzik. Thanks to such efforts, US-led forces are now fleeing from a fractured country significantly under Taliban control. The only clear accomplishment seems to be that production of opium has increased significantly.
Beneath the cacophony of these military adventures, Petraeus has quietly orchestrated the rapid growth of a global shadow war. Investigative journalist Mark Mazzetti uncovered how in 2009 Petraeus “ordered a broad expansion of clandestine military activity,” sending Special Operations troops to friendly and hostile nations across the Middle East, Central Asia and Africa in a worldwide militarization now enveloping as many as 120 countries. He’s ushered in a golden age of night raids, known for “corralling women,” as Richard Sale reports, and direly flouting religious custom by “herding men and women into a single room,” “hooding the men, zip-tying their arms and helicoptering them to secret prisons.”
A committed drone warrior, Petraeus’s short stint at the CIA institutionalized this form of extrajudicial assassination as the counterterrorism policy of choice. During his first month in office, he oversaw a series of strikes that left three American citizens dead (among countless nameless foreigners), including 16-year-old Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, killed while eating at an outdoor restaurant with his family. All that was left to recognize, his cousin recalled, was “the back of his hair.” Wider devastation followed the Obama administration’s first Yemeni missile strike in 2009, ordered by General Petraeus. At least 41 were killed, mostly civilians. 21 children and 14 women left behind little to identify. Wikileaks revealed the ensuing coverup, during which Petraeus worked directly with Obama to get Yemen’s dictatorial regime to take credit for the strike and keep a Yemeni journalist reporting the truth—Abdulelah Haider Shaye—in prison.
Hawks like Petraeus aren't concerned with the truth, really. The point is to manipulate perception, to justify whatever projection of American military power at whatever the cost in lives. “Syria,” Peter Feaver pronounced in March of this year, is a “set of bad outcomes produced by a rampant inaction,” ignoring U.S. weapons shipments to militants since at least early 2012, many of them allied with Iraqi al Qaeda, and skipping over the regime torture chambers (now detaining many children) that were long the most-favored destinations for the CIA’s “kidnap-and-torture” program.
The celebration of Petraeus’s ruinous legacy and glorification of American militarism should be read for what they are: wild-eyed threats toward the world’s poor and brown. It’s a twisted society that imprisons Chelsea Manning and chases Edward Snowden under the twice-removed hypothetical “may have put lives at risk of harm” while applauding the killers.
Prashanth Kamalakanthan is a Trinity senior. His column runs every other Wednesday. Send Prashanth a message on Twitter @pkinbrief.