Patricia Sheridan's Breakfast With ... Gen. David Petraeus
October 20, 2014 12:00 AM
Gen. David Petraeus.
By Patricia Sheridan / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Retired Army Gen. David Petraeus jumped into civilian life with the same determination and drive that helped him build a formidable military career. The former director of the CIA is now chairman of the KKR Global Institute and teaching at Harvard, the University of Southern California and Macaulay Honors College at CUNY. His nearly four decades in the Army included a post as commander of coalition forces in Iraq and Afghanistan and commander of the U.S. Central Command. Gen. Petraeus resigned his post as CIA director in 2012 because it was revealed he was having an extramarital affair with his biographer. He is the guest speaker at the American Middle East Institute’s seventh annual lecture Oct. 28 at 8 p.m. at Carnegie Music Hall, Oakland. Tickets: www.showclix.com/event/GeneralDavidPetraeus or 1-888-77-TICKETS.
What attracted you to a military life?
I think you pursue various courses in life because you admire others who have done that. Growing up in a village 7 miles from West Point, [N.Y.,] we had a number of West Point graduates, active officers, teachers who had taught at West Point. Our soccer coach had actually coached the national championship team at West Point. Our Sunday school teacher was one of the ski coaches. I delivered newspapers as a kid and probably a quarter of the people I delivered to were connected in some fashion to West Point. I developed a love and admiration for a number of these folks and decided I wanted to be like them.
Was there anyone you modeled your military career after, such as Eisenhower or Patton?
No, that would almost be presumptuous. I don’t think in the beginning you are consciously trying to be the next whatever. I think the role models for me were those who served in Vietnam, frankly. It was the captains and majors who were our instructors and tactical officers.They were the role models for my generation.
Do you miss being in the loop as CIA director or combat general?
It was the greatest of privileges to have the responsibilities that I had in uniform and at the agency. But I’m very fortunate to have a portfolio of activities now which are very intellectually stimulating, even the speaking circuit and serving on boards of advisers for six veterans organizations. These fit the definition of Teddy Roosevelt’s greatest gift in life, which is hard work worth doing.
Was there any intelligence on ISIS when you were CIA director?
ISIS in a sense is the evolution of an organization that we did defeat, Al-Qaeda in Iraq. Some of the very hard work we did to help reestablish the fabric of Iraqi society -- to bring the Sunni Arabs back into Iraqi society and give them an incentive to support the new Iraq rather than to oppose it -- was undone. It created fertile ground once again for the planting of the seeds of extremism and alienated the Sunni Arab component of Iraqi society.
What really revived Al-Qaeda in Iraq and turned them into the Islamic State [ISIS] was the civil war in Syria. They grew, gained experience and could identify competent leaders and then begin to capture arms, funding and generate significant resources to enable their expansion. People saw ISIS coming, even out of the intelligence world, it was well-known what ISIS was doing in Syria.
You worked so hard with your men and helped reopen the university in Mosul.
It is very, very sad to watch. It has been frustrating. But having said that, I don’t think the surge was in vain. We accomplished the mission that was set out for us. That was to give the Iraqis a new opportunity, to drive the level of violence down, to help reconnect elements of Iraqi society and to build forces and institutions and the rest so we could transition to them. We helped them rebuild their energy industry so they could fund all this.
What happened to the Iraqi security forces we trained?
You can trace the collapse in the north in particular to the fact that the population in which they were serving -- Sunni Arabs --was alienated over the past 2 ½ years by a variety of actions taken by the Iraqi government. So that population was no longer receptive to Iraqi security forces. In fact, it actually welcomed the Islamic State elements when they first came in.
Competent Iraqi leaders, many of whom I still e-mail and with whom we fought in Iraq, were replaced over time by sectarian loyalists who proved to be largely incompetent. Worst of all, the chain of command for these forces was disrupted enormously by the insertion of the so-called office of the commander-in-chief into very tactical measures.
They fought for a while when they came under attack in the north. Then they realized there was nobody coming to the rescue. They watched their commander turn tail and leave and in many cases they followed. Then it becomes an epidemic. We saw it during the fight for Baghdad. You fight very, very hard for a matter of days and then all of a sudden the resistance just collapses. That is the dynamic of combat.
What was combat like for you the first time you were under fire?
Combat is just flat hard. Combat is about loss of life. It’s about damage and destruction. War is terrible. It is what the military trains for and it is our responsibility to execute. Even when you are making exceptional progress and advancing, it is very tough.
People would ask what is it like to be the commander in Iraq or Afghanistan and I would say, “It is the most awesome of experiences on a good day. There just aren’t many good days.” A good day is no casualties, military or civilian.
Does the training and conditioning help elevate the fear of dying?
When [combat] starts, training kicks in. You have trained, in some cases, your entire professional life. I was not in the Gulf War. I saw the damage done after the fact. But in the very first combat, there is an intensity there that is, I think, unique. The first call you get on the radio when you have lost one of your soldiers, there is a chill to your blood.
In light of your experiences, do you think personal issues have any bearing on leadership abilities?
There are various qualities, attributes, capabilities that are essential in leadership. At the very senior levels what I look for ... is a quality of strategic judgment. It’s the ability to get the big ideas right.
Frankly, you see it in business just as you see it in the military. What matters most, as we used to say, was not the surge of forces. It was the surge of ideas. It was the change in strategy. It was the complete reversal of some of the actions. If you don’t get the big ideas right and by the way, keep them right. Because it is not enough to have one great big idea which can power you for quite a long time. You have to keep refining and adapting the big ideas, in some cases discovering new ones.
Look at Kodak. It had an extraordinarily big idea but ultimately did not keep up with the times and the transition to digital. A truly strategic leader is somebody who can chart the path for a large organization. That is the quality and capability you are looking for in a leader.
Patricia Sheridan: email@example.com, 412-263-2613 or follow her on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/pasheridan.
Patricia Sheridan: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-2613 or follow her on Twitter at @pasheridan.
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