Within the military, the White House, and the halls of Congress, General David H. Petraeus has become a near-mythic figure, which is perhaps fitting for a man who has been handed the superhuman task of bringing order to the seemingly intractable chaos in Iraq. Regarded as a straight shooter by Republicans and Democrats alike, and well respected among current and former military officials, his name has been invoked alongside those of legendary military leaders (among them Dwight Eisenhower) and tales of his keen intellect, competitive flair, and grit abound. According to one piece of Petraeus lore, several days after taking an M-16 round to the chest during a training mishap in 1991, he rose from his bed, dropped to the floor, and proceeded to do 50 pushups.
Colonel William Darley, the editor of the army-run journal Military Review, served under Petraeus while he was the commanding officer at Fort Leavenworth, home to the elite Army Command and General Staff College, where, among other things, Petraeus oversaw the drafting of the military's oft-touted Counterinsurgency Field Manual. Darley describes him as "a genuine soldier-scholar-diplomat" and a "lead by example" type of officer, adding that he is also "the most competitive person I have ever knownever." He will not just beat you, Darley says, but "make a point of it."
"This guy is a major intellect with vision and discipline and driveand he can do more one-armed push-ups than anyone I know," says Lieutenant Colonel John Nagl, a member of the writing team that produced the Counterinsurgency Field Manual. Nagl met Petraeus twenty years ago while interning at Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe, where Petraeus served as a speechwriter to then-NATO military commander General John Galvin. He recalls going running with Petraeus last year at Fort Sill in Oklahoma, where, he says, the general left men 20 years his junior "trailing in his wake and, literally, gasping for breath.
"He's been shot in the chest, he has a shattered hip, and he ran me into the ground," Nagl says.
Just as legendary as his competitive streak and fanaticism for physical fitness is Petraeus' ambition. A three-decade career in the military has seen him graduate at the top of his class at West Point, earn a Ph.D. from Princeton, and, most recently, receive his fourth star as a general. But in the eyes of some of his critics (who call him "King David"), his ambition reads as grandstanding and self-promotion. This image was no doubt reinforced in July 2004 when Petraeus, then in charge of training Iraq's security forces, appeared on the cover of an issue of Newsweek that bore the headline, "Can This Man Save Iraq?"
Petraeus' leadership qualities, combined with his role as the Bush administration's last hope for saving face on Iraq, has set off speculation that the general could run for office some daypossibly the presidency, in 2012. "This man is a walking mass of ambition," says a former senior intelligence official. "I'm sure he's thinking about Dwight Eisenhower every day. I know people who know him and they all think that's true."
The Petraeus-for-President scenario is out there, confirms Steve Clemons, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation and author of the popular beltway blog, the Washington Note. "A lot of people around him are beginning to think it's the natural way." Petraeus, he adds, could find himself on a "Wes Clark-like track, but on the Republican side."
Then again, cautions the former intelligence official, "Unless you're Dwight Eisenhower, George Marshall, or Douglas MacArthur, the chance that anyone is going to take you seriously, it's not very high. Look at Wes Clark. He's a bright fellow, but people just don't give a shit about him enough to make that a possibility. But if you came back from Iraq and there was a reasonable outcome, then a guy as attractive and well spoken as Petraeus would become a possibility."
A military official and longtime friend of Petraeus says he has "extraordinary political instincts," noting that he has put them to the test in Iraq in his negotiations with tribal leaders and the country's fractious political parties. "He would absolutely shoot me for saying this, but the nation would be very well served" if he ran for office, the official says.
So, if the general does harbor political ambitions, would that reflect on the progress report he is to deliver to Congress this week? One former military official who served in Iraq suggests that his reputation might be better served by providing a "rational assessment," even if that puts him at odds with the White House. "If he were to defy the president bent on distorting the truth, he would be honored many times over." On the other hand, the official adds, "If ambition starts to overrule duty, then we have a problem."