The Impact of General David Petraeus

Bob Costas once said about the greatest basketball player ever to live that “Michael Jordan is not just a superstar, he’s an overachieving superstar.” That is the best way I can describe General Petraeus, a good friend and former graduate school classmate.

What Costas meant, of course, was that in addition to being perhaps the most gifted player ever to step on the court, Jordan also wanted to succeed more than almost anyone else around. Perhaps there were a handful of other players who were equally tenacious, but not more than that, and the combination of talent with drive made Jordan one of a kind.

It is hard to capture a whole career in a short essay, and to add new insights about a public figure who has been so closely watched and avidly studied for half a decade. But perhaps the best thing I can add to the commentary about Petraeus is this: He is most striking to me for his sheer doggedness, his consistency and his positive energy.

Some might wonder how he could be so brilliant as to have figured out Iraq and made the “surge” work. Yes, he is brilliant. But he didn’t spend a lot of time wondering whether the Sunni Awakening, or the Sadr militia’s ceasefire, or the buildup in Iraqi forces, or the greater cooperation from Prime Minister Maliki and a new crop of subordinate leaders, or the increase in U.S. forces together with improved military tactics was the key to success, above all the others. Many of us back home debated such things.

P4, as he is often known, didn’t waste time on such matters. He just tried to make all of the above factors work as well as they could, all the time, with incessant energy and effort.

Petraeus also empowered subordinates. He has the attention to detail of a micromanager, but in fact he is not a micromanager. He encouraged junior officers and others in the field to be “pentathletes,” handling everything from military tactics to unit leadership to political relations with Iraqis and later Afghans with élan and initiative.

If we succeeded as a nation, particularly in Iraq, it is largely because he encouraged and helped those under his command to succeed.