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President David Petraeus? American voters have elected 10 former generals

Special to WorldTribune.com

By Brian M Downing

Economic leadership does not readily expand, like the medieval lord’s military leadership, into the leadership of nations. I have called the bourgeois rationalistic and unheroic. — Joseph Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy

Speculation on the next presidential race began shortly after the final vote was tallied last November. David Petraeus’s recent speech in Los Angeles signals a desire to reenter public life and few doubt he would be a formidable political candidate. His intentions are uncertain, perhaps even to himself, but few doubt that he has tremendous ambition and self-confidence — two key requisites for the White House job.

David Petraeus.

David Petraeus.

Petraeus led the 101st Airborne Division in Iraq and later, as commanding general there, he negotiated a temporary settlement with the Sunni insurgents. Upon retiring from military service, he headed the CIA then resigned amid a scandal involving an affair with his biographer. Washington has certainly seen more sordid things and President Obama urged him to stay on, but Petraeus chose to step down.

He came through it with his honor more or less intact, though honor is chiefly just campaign copy in Washington and hardly a requisite for high office anymore.

Americans love generals and have elected many of them to the presidency: George Washington, William Henry Harrison, Andrew Jackson, Franklin Pierce, Zachary Taylor, Ulysses S. Grant, Rutherford B. Hayes, James Garfield, Chester A. Arthur, and Benjamin Harrison. William McKinley had only made it to major prior to election, which ushered in a hiatus in president-generals until Dwight Eisenhower was elected in 1952.

Other figures, including Theodore Roosevelt and John Kennedy, rose in political life, in part owing to wartime valor. Petraeus, despite a large number of ribbons on his tunic, has no decorations for valor. Nonetheless, he is widely admired for easing the Iraq insurgency and extricating the country from a disaster.

Though the general has not stated his political party, general officers these days are overwhelmingly conservative – Wesley Clark to the contrary. They see the Democratic Party, fairly or not, as more supportive of social spending than of national defense and as the party of presidents who micromanaged wars and eluded the draft.

Important parts of the conservative coalition will find much to admire in Petraeus. The Religious Right has long seen the military as a bastion of moral decency, the defender of the nation, and the leader of America’s mission in the world. Veterans and active duty personnel will disproportionately support the retired four-star general, though of course some see him and other flag officers as uncritical of recent foreign adventures and insufficiently concerned with the lives of young soldiers.

Business figures will believe him to be an able manager, one not given to spending and taxation binges. Perhaps most of all, they will see Petraeus as one of the few conservatives now on the horizon who is electable.

GOP officials will also see Petraeus as more electable than any economic leader or professional politician in the fold. The general can appeal to those outside the base, which of course contrasts with the less-than-attractive figures now feeling things out. The general will be presented as having served the country in a nonpartisan way — under both George Bush, Jr. and Barack Obama — above the petty squabbles and dealings of the ordinary political process.

The general’s adaptiveness, ably demonstrated by imposing counterinsurgency on an establishment long wedded to conventional warfare and massive firepower, will be a further attraction. He will be seen as someone who commands respect across the aisle, thinks outside the party boxes, and can get the country moving again.

Petraeus may not want the job. He will have to preside over severe cuts in military spending, though he might see this as an opportunity to see that cuts are done in the least damaging way. In this respect, Petraeus may be able to shape the future of the military more profoundly than any general or president has hitherto been able to.

The general is accustomed to giving orders and seeing them carried through. The presidency isn’t really like that, as Truman wryly observed just before Ike was sworn in, and Petraeus’s tenure at CIA is said to have made it clear that entrenched career bureaucrats are not compliant field-grade officers.

Nor is he accustomed to debate, save for the lively criticism he encouraged from his counterinsurgency brain trust, whose remarks, it must be noted, always concluded with a crisp salute. This raises the question of how he would stand up in the often pitiless GOP primaries — and also in debates with the likely Democratic candidate who is neither compliant nor willing to salute.

Brian M Downing is a political/military analyst and author of The Military Revolution and Political Change and The Paths of Glory: War and Social Change in America from the Great War to Vietnam. He can be reached at brianmdowning@gmail.com.

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