There really is no particularly informative historical precedent for Gen. David Petraeus’ upcoming public assessment of Iraq.
Perhaps we are entering new historical terrain, where the commanding general’s pivotal strategic gambit is a media event.
And media event it is. With its certain long-term global import and short-term political impact, Petraeus’ report meets a hustling television exec’s primal requirement: drama.
When the spotlight strikes his face and he begins to speak, we will witness drama in large letters.
No one, however, should confuse the general’s appearance with entertainment.
The quick commentators will dub his report a historical pivot. That will be true, but only in a narrow sense. Despite the sensationalist headlines and hyperbolic fretting, given the decades of terror and the centuries of political fossilization afflicting the Middle East, the trend lines in The War on Terror are astonishingly good.
Trends are the great truths behind pivotal moments, and Petraeus is aware of that. Since 9-11, America has made great strides in addressing at the fundamental level the social pathologies that seed Islamo-fascist terrorism. In short form it is this: The choice between tyrant and terrorist is no choice. Modernity requires a degree of social consensus and economic liberalization. Iraq is thus a radical experiment in modernity in a vital region afflicted by economic failure, tribal factiousness and oil-dollar powered feudalism.
Petraeus is aware of those positive trends, as well as the inevitable catastrophes that ultimately produce victory.
Petraeus’ pivotal moment is the rare opportunity to correct what media analysts call "the dominant narrative."
That dominant narrative has been defeat. Defeat has been a useful narrative to that large percentage in the political class who are mere politicians, not statesmen.
Instantaneous and pervasive media have reshaped the political environment. Bill Clinton’s "perpetual presidential campaign," waged from a White House war room, recognized this condition.
I recall visiting with an intelligence officer in the Pentagon during the Persian Gulf War in February 1991. He pointed to a television monitor tuned to CNN and quipped, "That’s current intelligence." It was narrowly framed, poorly contextualized, emotionally charged and anecdotal intelligence, but his wisecrack was dead-on — a live camera relaying pictures from the battlefield backed by breathless commentary is current intelligence. The Gulf War and Clinton’s endless campaign preceded the Internet’s expansion and video cell phones. Instant today is faster than 10 years ago.
Petraeus’ report is a creature of this instantaneous and pervasive media. For better or worse, he is responding to the condition and using the condition.
War doesn’t operate on media time or political calendars. Petraeus’ report will address that fact. The Baghdad clock and the Washington clock run at different speeds. The Baghdad Clock is ponderously slow and painfully incremental. Why? Because what the Iraqi government does and does not do must be politically digestible in a nation where democratic politics is a brand new experience.
Washington’s clock — at least the one run by the likes of Sens. Carl Levin and Hillary Clinton — is set to the 2008 election.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki disdains their myopia. At a news conference earlier this week, Maliki said: "There are American officials who consider Iraq as if it were one of their villages, for example Hillary Clinton and Carl Levin. They should come to their senses."
Petraeus will give all politicians an opportunity to come to their senses.
Style always counts. I am certain he will be honest, disciplined, sobering and judicious in his presentation.
As for substance, I’ll wager he will ask for the antithesis of the instant: patience.
Instant experts will demand numbers, and odds are Petraeus will have mathematics and graphs. He may address semi-quantifiable factors like the number of trained and equipped Iraqi troops, the number of qualified Iraqi senior and mid-level military officers who can plan and lead their own operations, and the number and locale of police precincts judged competent and minimally corrupt.
But the gist of his message will be what military veterans call GUTINT — gut intelligence. GUTINT says sticking with the effort in Iraq is crucial if we want a more peaceful and prosperous 21st century, for Iraqis, Americans and every one else on the planet.