Inside the mind of General Petraeus

Jamie Weinstein Senior Writer
Font Size:

History will remember retired Army General David Petraeus, now director of the Central Intelligence Agency, as “the model soldier-scholar-diplomat,” argues Paula Broadwell, author of the recently released “All In: The Education of General David Petraeus.”

He was “the top-rated soldier in every one of his assignments over nearly 40 years,” Broadwell said in an interview with The Daily Caller.

“It clearly was not a coincidence or accident that he was selected for six straight commands as a general officer, five of them in combat.”

But his battlefield success was matched by his intellectual achievements, she argues.

“A star-man (top 5 percent) at West Point, as well as a varsity letterman and cadet captain, top of his class in military schools and a PhD in international relations at Princeton, he later became the chief intellectual author of a counterinsurgency doctrine that helped to usher in an era of organizational change,” she explained.

Petraeus was also uniquely adept at public diplomacy for a military man, Broadwell says.

“Indeed, his élan in engagements with world leaders complemented by his vision for global outreach have invited many to liken him to Eisenhower or Marshall,” she said. (RELATED: More on David Petraeus)

But what may be Petraeus’ most lasting legacy, says Broadwell, is the “next generation of leaders” he inspired — the “Petraeus Generation.”

“[T]his generation of leaders, many of whom are his mentorees, will inevitably help shape the Army―and national security policies―of the future,” she said.

“Indeed, Petraeus has worked hard to cultivate and inspire troopers at every rank. He is a relentless mentor; Petraeus takes time to clear out his inbox each night, responding personally to many requests: to write a letter of recommendation for grad school or support a worthy wounded warrior cause. He often helps aspiring doctoral students edit their research papers.”

But still actively engaged in the national security debate as director of the CIA, perhaps it is too soon to talk about Petraeus’ legacy.

“I certainly don’t think he is done influencing various aspects of U.S. national security policy!” Broadwell exclaimed.

Check out TheDC’s interview with Broadwell below:

What inspires or motivates General Petraeus?

“Results, boy!” David Petraeus’s father used to say. His father’s voice continues to resonate with him — I suspect even in his new role as director of the CIA. His father, an accidental immigrant, was a sailor from Holland who was at sea when the Nazis invaded Holland. Unable to return to his homeland, Sixtus Petraeus landed in the U.S. and stayed, later joining the U.S. Merchant Marines and continuing to serve throughout WWII. A serious seafarer with high standards, Sixtus would not tolerate excuses from his son. The young Petraeus was driven to excel and — like many of us — please his parents.

I think the idea of the Army’s old motto, “Be All You Can Be,” appealed to Petraeus as well, as it did to so many of us who served. Petraeus thrived at West Point and in soldierly and scholarly pursuits, in part because others recognized early on that he had great potential. He received the top block/rating in virtually every one of his Officer Evaluation Reports over his decades of service.

Beyond that, being consequential in the world and contributing to organizational success and, later, national security success, has always been a goal for Petraeus in every job he has served. On several occasions he has quoted Teddy Roosevelt’s observation that, “Life’s greatest gift is hard work, worth doing.” He believes that — and to him, work worth doing means missions of consequence to our country and service to our nation. Ultimately, that’s what motivates him.

What inspires him is the others with whom he is privileged to work who are also committed to serving our nation, whether in uniform or as the so-called “silent warriors” of the CIA.

Does the general still believe that victory is obtainable in Afghanistan and, if so, that we have the right strategy to obtain it?

When speaking about Iraq or Afghanistan, Petraeus has long called himself a “qualified realist.” He recognizes the complexity of insurgency warfare and has said waiting for progress in counterinsurgency in Afghanistan is like watching paint dry.

That said, he knows why President Obama sent him to Afghanistan — to set the conditions for U.S. troops to begin to draw down forces and transition to an Afghan lead in security, governance and development. The surge of forces was effective there, clearing some areas in Regional Command South at such a level that insurgent attacks went down by 30 percent in the last year. That said, in areas where resources were not surged, including Regional Command East, attacks went up by 19 percent. Progress has been made in Afghanistan, but it is fragile and reversible, as Petraeus has repeatedly noted.

The probability of continued progress and “victory,” as you frame it, depends on our continued resilience and commitment and on Afghans’ ability to stand up their own security forces and improve governance. No one, especially Petraeus, expects Afghanistan to become a Switzerland or beacon of democracy and human rights, but there is hope that it can become a state capable of preventing al-Qaida and other nefarious actors from establishing training camps where they train and plan another attack against the U.S. I think that the comprehensive counterinsurgency strategy, if properly resourced, can obtain such an outcome.

What are some of the most interesting facts or stories about Petraeus you discovered while researching and interviewing him?

I was surprised to learn how important educational reading is to him. Given the pace of his various commands in Iraq, CENTCOM, Afghanistan and now at the CIA, and the hours he works each day, can you imagine he finds time to read something outside of his work domain nearly daily as well? His educational reading interests range from grand strategy to biographies of statesmen to historical fiction.

I was also surprised to learn and witness that he really has what his crew at the CIA has called a “genetic mutant” physical fitness capability. He can do over 100 pushups, abdominal crunches and run sub-seven minute miles for miles! He works out twice a day (including cycling on a stationary bike from home in the morning while reading daily intelligence updates). He maintains that taking time to stay “fit to fight” also provides him with time to reflect and plan. Finding time for solitude is a rarity for busy people, as is finding time for fitness, but Petraeus has prioritized a way to maintain both. I attribute his energy — and his ability to keep 18-hour days for nearly a decade while dealing with the weight of the world in some jobs — in part to his dedication to physical training.

How does Petraeus view his new role at the CIA compared to his previous leading roles in the military over the past decade?

By all reports, he loves it. I’m told he says he is “living the dream!” He thinks it is the best job in Washington.

First, he loves the caliber of the work force. Second, he loves learning new systems and has enjoyed working with the intelligence community — comprised of 16 organizations — writ large. He also enjoys being back in Washington and all the intellectually stimulating visitors and engagements he has in his new role outside the “war zones” where he has spent much of the last decade. Additionally, he believes the CIA is engaged in missions of consequence and that the CIA is a true national treasure.

According to one of his senior advisors who has served three CIA directors, Petraeus is “driving the organization like no other director has done.”

Are there any commentators on the national stage whose insights Petraeus pays particular attention to and respects?

He is a voracious consumer of information and intelligence. He reads news and intelligence updates for approximately an hour each morning while CNN or other international broadcasting shows inform him of open source info. He is a sometimes follower of political talk shows like Charlie Rose, but generally sticks to national and international news providers.

He also subscribes to the products of many think tanks that provide analysis on current and emerging threats, such as [Center for Strategic and International Studies], Politico and the Early Bird. Furthermore, his loyal fan club seems to send him daily news and insights from the frontlines — of the war in Afghanistan, the Pentagon, Capitol Hill or Princeton. He is constantly inundated with information and seems to be able to process it quickly. This “infotopia” from sources outside his “day job” is part of why I think he has such great situational awareness across the tactical, operational and strategic realms.

Some hope that Petraeus will one day run for president. Do you think he would ever consider such a jump?

No. He says he never will, and I don’t think his wife Holly — a very private person — would stand for it. That said, if there was another 9/11 and the nation called upon him to lead them through a crisis, I can’t say for sure he wouldn’t rise to the call. I think, however, he prefers to remain in non-political (relatively speaking) jobs where he can capitalize on strong ties with both parties.

Follow Jamie on Twitter