Politics & Policy

General’s Media Playbook

Something of a victory for Petraeus already.

General David Petraeus should be regarded as a credible voice on progress in Iraq, not a political and journalistic snake charmer.

It’s still impossible to tell whether any of the metrics of success in the Iraq war presented in the report accompanying General Petraeus’s testimony will be convincing to Congress or the public at large that the troop surge is working. Still there’s no denying that General Petraeus has already achieved the seemingly impossible and made real progress where previous Iraq-war commanders had failed on an issue vital to achieving victory: He’s been generating positive press coverage for the war effort.

That’s a low bar, and it’s hard to quantify the effect of positive press coverage as it relates to military success. But in 2005, one media study found that there were four times as many stories focusing on the costs and problems of the war as there are accounts military successes  – so it’s hard to imagine the media isn’t undermining the war effort, intentionally or not. Especially in an era where congressional politics is as likely to determine troop levels as the counterinsurgency plans of the military leadership, a general who wants to win has to make his case in the court of public opinion.

DRUM’S BEAT

And that’s exactly what Petraeus has been doing, much to the irritation of the antiwar crowd. Representative is The Washington Monthly’s Kevin Drum: “I’ve been thinking about the whole David Petraeus issue for the past couple of days, and what I’ve been thinking about is how badly the liberal blogosphere and the liberal establishment have been outplayed here,” Drum observes. “While we’ve spent the last six months snarking about Friedman Units and complaining aimlessly about spineless Democrats, Petraeus has been slowly and methodically carrying out an extremely disciplined military campaign with a very precise goal: gaining support for David Petraeus and the surge.”

The funny thing about this observation is that Petraeus is essentially being called out here for trying to do his job, a task one might more succinctly define as “winning.” Certainly, a general tasked with achieving a military objective is within his rights to campaign for more political support for that objective, even going directly to the public. There’s no guarantee he will be granted further political support — be it more resources, extended deadlines for showing progress, etc. — but it’s hard to blame him for trying.

And Petraeus has tried very hard, observes Drum. “For months the military transports to Baghdad have been stuffed with analysts and congress members, and every one of them has gotten a full court press of carefully planned and scripted presentations, tightly controlled visits to favored units, and assorted dollops of ‘classified’ information designed to flatter his guests and substantiate his rosy assessments without the inconvenience of having to defend them in public,” Drum writes.

Of course, Drum doesn’t substantiate his claim about any of this misleading classified information beyond a comment from a Rep. John Porter (R., Nev.) that he was told by Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker that there could be genocide, exorbitantly high gas prices, and the possibility of Iran taking over Iraq if the U.S. pulls out. But none of these are ridiculously overstated consequences of what might happen if the U.S. pulls out — in fact, in citing the article about Porter, Drum didn’t mention that the congressman’s own spokesman noted that the scenario “makes sense if Iran moves into Iraq.” Porter, who has made three trips to Baghdad in the last 18 months, also said of his trip “I saw a lot of successes, and I noticed substantial improvement in Baghdad.” Porter is in a fine position to judge whether there has been progress in Iraq on his most recent trip — and a Drum seems to be in an unlikely position to suggest to the Congressman Porter that he was subject to some dog-and-pony show.

Drum nonetheless feels that Petraeus has somehow been dishonorable: “Even though there’s been no discernable political progress, minimal reconstruction progress, and apparently no genuine decrease in violence, he’s managed to convince an awful lot of people that the first doesn’t matter, the second is far more widespread than it really is, and the third is the opposite of reality,” Drum said. Drum also suggests that Petraeus is not “an honest broker.”

To address Drum’s points in order, first, it hardly seems that Petraeus has been deceptive to anybody about the woeful state of political progress in Iraq. Here’s the beginning of a recent Reuters story: “The top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, said on Friday the Iraqi government’s progress toward national reconciliation, a key justification for increased troops levels, was disappointing” — sounds pretty straightforward there. Second, there’s no compelling case to be made that Petraeus has made any undue claims about the reconstruction effort, beyond being justifiably proud of a few notable successes with regard to reconstruction such as city of Baqubah. And in any event, Petraeus undoubtedly knows that trying to convince anybody that Iraqi reconstruction is a runaway success ahead of his congressional testimony is a fool’s errand.

Finally, as for the decrease in violence, Petraeus’s claim that there has been a 75-percent reduction in sectarian violence remains a controversial proposition as the Government Accountability Office’s Comptroller General David Walker has publicly disagreed with the Pentagon over the number of civilian deaths in Iraq. However, according to the New York Times, “American military officials note that the G.A.O. assessment did not take account of August, when the most significant gains in reducing violence materialized not only in Baghdad, but also across Iraq,” which is significant considering that the surge only reached full strength two months ago. The latest military statistics show IED attacks, car bombs, mortar and rocket attacks, total civilian deaths and sectarian killings are all down significantly in August. Further, when it comes to violence in Iraq, one important benchmark has been largely ignored by the media. In the past two months since the surge reached full strength, combat deaths of U.S. soldiers have dropped dramatically, from a yearly high of 123 deaths in May to just 57 in August. Critics of the surge will likely note that correlation is not causation — but that’s a lot of correlation post-surge.

Surely in the months to come the statistics will be picked apart and parsed by those trying to prove their respective agendas with regard to the war. But for now, there’s absolutely no reason to question Petraeus’s integrity. The fact that he’s taken it upon himself to highlight successes over failures hardly means he is an untrustworthy commander. Quite the opposite, Petraeus has been taken seriously by the media when he says that there are measurable successes in Iraq precisely because he has rightfully acquired a reputation for being independent, despite President Bush’s track record of gravitating toward yes men. After the fall of Baghdad, he is reported to have asked embedded reporters to “Tell me where this ends.” As Peggy Noonan dryly noted, “It was the right question.”

Petraeus also remains credible because he’s impressed prominent critics of the war such as the Washington Post’s Thomas Ricks (author of Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq). Here’s Ricks’s assessment of Petraeus:

Just about the best general in the Army in a lot of people’s view. Quite ambitious. Quite smart … Stands out — particularly in recent history — because he had a very successful first tour in Iraq in 2003-2004. Really an exception to the rule. The other division commanders were digging themselves a pretty deep hole. Petraeus realized very quickly that US military training doctrine didn’t really do the job. So he kind of improvised, reached back to his knowledge of Vietnam and counter-insurgency theory and operated very differently. 

THE MEDIA FRONT

This same adaptability and willingness to think differently likely led Petraeus to take a more active role in handling the media than his predecessors. Once upon a time it might even been a dangerous distraction for a general to think about his media strategy as well as his battlefield one. But that’s no longer the case.

In British General Rupert Smith’s book The Utility of Forcethe best Clausewitzian military analysis to be published in a very long time — the author argues that considering the media narrative from the very beginning is integral to a successful military campaign. Petraeus is also smart enough to have largely come to the same conclusion, and realized that the media has to be managed.

Smith writes of having viewed all of the television coverage relating to his command in the first Gulf War. “In most cases the journalist, perhaps in attempting to be impartial, reported from his or her individual perspective rather than explaining the perspectives of those engaged,” Smith said. “As a result, the reality of what I had experienced with my command was lost or not conveyed. It was after viewing these tapes that I formed the view that a narrator was required in our modern operations — and ownership of the story must be claimed from the start.”

It would be hard to dissect how Petraeus appears to have taken ownership of a sizable portion of the Iraq media narrative, but when he announces that sectarian violence is down 75 percent the general knows full well the effect such a statement will have on the media. The release of such information is undoubtedly calculated for maximum effect. However, that media coverage has been favorable has not been solely because Petraeus has “slowly and methodically” convinced the media that there are gains in Iraq to be reported. It’s also largely because claims of progress are not without substance. Certainly it would be hard to argue all of the recent positive media coverage of Iraq is the result of Petraeus manipulating statistics and presenting a false image of the conflict, particularly with regard to the much talked about the New York Times oped “A War We Just Might Win,” in early August by Brookings scholars Michael O’Hanlon and Kenneth M. Pollack that caused many in the mainstream journalism community to look at their war coverage anew.

Indeed, Smith also offers this piece of advice for military commanders fighting in modern conflicts. “Never lie to the press, whether to deceive them or the opponent. You will in time be found out, with the result that your ability to communicate with the people will be jeopardized,” Smith writes. There’s no reason to think that Petraeus has been spreading propaganda and/or disinformation if for no other reason than it would be tactically unwise.

Finally, the fact that the surge has received some positive press coverage doesn’t mean that the press hasn’t remained appropriately skeptical. In advance of his testimony, the Sunday Washington Post’s top story was, “Among Top Officials, ‘Surge’ Has Sparked Dissent, Infighting.” (Though Fred Kagan argues that at least within the military itself, there is less internal dissent over the surge than the media is portraying ) And much of the coverage is even inappropriately skeptical. On the same day, New York Times published an editorial with the ludicrous claim that Petraeus has “credibility problems” because he published a positive oped on the war effort in the Washington Post a full six weeks before the 2004 election. What exactly is the appropriate length of time to abstain from publishing an op-ed on the war in the midst of an election? Is there one? Petraeus’s oped hardly qualifies as an October surprise, and to suggest it was politically motivated simply because it was within two months of an election doesn’t actually address the truth of what he originally wrote — which should be the real arbiter of Petraeus’s credibility.

When Petraeus testifies before Congress this week, there’s no reason to suspect that he will say anything definitive about the prospect of victory in Iraq. But despite what bloggers and antiwar journalists are saying, there are many reasons that whatever the general says to Congress should be given the benefit of the doubt.

 

 – Mark Hemingway is a National Review Online staff reporter. National Review editorial associate Emily Karrs contributed to this piece.

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