The General in Our Labyrinth

David Petraeus and grandiose failure in the Middle East


Credit Gen. David Petraeus with trying to apply two essential rules of politics in his testimony before Congress last Monday: always sell high what you don't have, and buy cheap. Petraeus sold a significant drawdown of America forces by next summer, though he couldn't do otherwise since the rotation cycle of U.S. forces makes a longer deployment almost impossible. And thanks to that phony concession, he is trying to buy a much more extended deployment for American soldiers in Iraq.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was not wrong when she responded, "sounds to me like a 10-year, at least, commitment to an open-ended presence and war." But Petraeus just might succeed in having his way, for now at least, because he made clear that there is so much more to Iraq than domestic American politics. In a speech this evening, President Bush is expected to endorse the general's recommendation for only gradual troop reductions.

The gist of Petraeus' written testimony, alongside that of the U.S. ambassador in Baghdad, Ryan Crocker, was expected, given recent media leaks. The general intends to gradually reduce forces to pre-surge levels by next summer, with subsequent reductions to follow, though Petraeus added for good measure, "it would be premature to make recommendations on the pace of such reductions at this time." American forces will continue to train Iraqi security units, but for the moment it would again be "premature" to abandon the defense of the Iraqi population, he added. Progress was clearly discernible, Petraeus insisted, but he exhibited no overconfidence, observing: "I should note again that, like Ambassador Crocker, I believe Iraq's problems will require a long-term effort. There are no easy answers or quick solutions. And though we both believe this effort can succeed, it will take time. Our assessments underscore, in fact, the importance of recognizing that a premature drawdown of our forces would likely have devastating consequences."

However, two words—one very present in Petraeus' presentation, the other completely absent—neatly defined the American predicament in Iraq. The general mentioned "Iran" in one way or another 10 times in his opening statement, but not once did he utter the word "democracy." Petraeus declared that "none of us earlier this year appreciated the extent of Iranian involvement in Iraq, something about which we and Iraq's leaders all now have greater concern." This he listed as a reason why the United States might have to remain longer in Iraq, placing the American presence there in the context of regional containment of Iranian power. It will not be easy for Congress to push for a rapid withdrawal of U.S. forces if the net result is that Iraq falls into the lap of its eastern neighbor.

However, the fact that Petraeus did not refer to democracy was more revealing, confirming the extent to which the Middle East is a graveyard for grand projects. The general's testimony was all about power and its limitations, not in the least about an American desire to democratize the Arabs. For Petraeus, what happens in Iraq will be defined by what is possible, by a correlation of political and military forces that might favor one side or the other. There was little abstraction in his testimony; Petraeus didn't deploy extravagant ideas—reasonable from a man called in mainly to avert a complete American debacle in Iraq.

Where the general displayed inevitable modesty, he might have been fortified in knowing that the U.S. democratization effort is not the only grandiose project the Iraqi conflict will help scuttle. Iran's attempt to expand its influence regionally, namely through advances in Iraq that will give it more sway over the Persian Gulf as a whole, is already hitting up against the existential fears of the mainly Sunni Arab states, particularly Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt. Flaccid and increasingly illegitimate, Arab leaders will nevertheless show fierce single-mindedness in mobilizing against Iran, mostly through sectarian means, if that becomes necessary to save their regimes. The notion of a new Persian imperium in the region also seems fanciful with the U.S. almost certain to stay put on Iran's borders. But if we are to believe Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, both the U.S. and Israel are destined to soon disappear.

Maybe it's the fate of present and former empires to reject stasis, but Ahmadinejad's impudence, if transformed into policy, is likely to lead Iran precisely nowhere. But the Arab states as well, agents of stasis for over four decades, have paid a heavy price for peddling grand projects. Arab nationalism, instead of uniting Arabs in a single state, mainly dissolved into brutal authoritarianism and factionalism, with the Syrian and Iraqi branches of the Baath Party having fought most bitterly against each other between the late 1970s and early 1990s. Similarly, the Saudi ambition of spreading Wahhabism through the funding of mosques and educational institutions backfired, so that the most dangerous threats to the monarchy today are the violent Islamist groups it fostered and sustained for so long.

For a brief moment, during the allegedly golden age of President Gamal Abdul Nasser, Egypt looked like it would become a cornerstone of Arab progress, and many in the Middle East bought into this. Yet the optimism died following the Egyptian military fiasco in Yemen during the 1960s, the breakup of Egypt's union with Syria in 1961, and the devastating loss to Israel in the June 1967 Arab-Israeli war. At the end, Abdul Nasser personified what he had wrought: dying at the relatively young age of 52 of a heart attack, his legacy one of successive premature burials.

In that sense, Petraeus may be the defining figure of a typical Middle Eastern moment: someone brought in to limit the damage brought about by hubris. But there is hubris and there is hubris: uniting the Arab world under the rubric of a totalistic national-cultural ideology such as Arab nationalism, usually by coercion; forcing the Arabs of the Middle East to accept Persian hegemony; using one's vast funds to disseminate a peculiar, acutely bigoted brand of Islam such as Saudi Arabia has done for decades, are not really comparable to installing representative government in a country that was until 2003 ruled by a mass murderer.

The Bush administration has abandoned the democratization goal, showing perhaps that it never seriously cared about it in the first place. But that shouldn't undermine a deeper truth. The only grand project that can ever really work in the Middle East is democratization, because only democracy won't leave behind bitter losers. But the Arab world may yet be a long way away from that enlightened step, despite what the optimists—present company included—believe. That Petraeus never mentioned democracy shows that he's integrating into the region.

Reason contributing editor Michael Young is opinion editor of the Daily Star newspaper in Lebanon