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Petraeus’ ‘constructive opportunism’

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When Gen. David Petraeus took command of the U.S. and international forces in Iraq early in 2007, the four-star general promised to communicate with both the president and his critics in Congress. He tried to remain neutral and professional during his 20-month tenure. Relinquishing the reins in mid-September, he’s now Commander, U.S. Central Command.

By fall of last year, it was time to communicate in person. Here are highlights from how he handled it, how he conveys his thoughts and what guides his thinking.

  • He takes morning runs “to get my game face on.” Years ago, Petraeus aced Ranger School, one of the hardest endurance tests in the U.S. armed forces. He survived two serious noncombat injuries. He’s still a fiercely competitive runner and does one-armed push-ups.
  • He rarely feels stress. His occasional spike in blood pressure comes from reversals on the battlefield and the deaths of his soldiers, not from any brouhaha in the public arena. Facing angry members of Congress under bright lights for 10 hours in a hard chair, he says, “becomes an out-of-body experience very, very quickly. … You have to actually work very hard to stay focused. …  It was just something to be endured.”
  • He believes not only in calling the shots in battle but also in telling his top officers every day, simply and clearly, his ideas on how the war is being fought. He also repeats “the commander’s intent” to the troops continuously in letters, e-mails, PowerPoints and storyboards. He’s a professional briefer.
  • His command philosophy might be called “constructive opportunism.” Petraeus considers every Iraqi province unique. “What you’re trying to figure out is what works—right here, right now,” he says. His defense of how he’s conducted the war is that it’s happening on many fronts and that U.S. forces have managed to hold it in check, which he sees as necessary and remarkable but also not good enough.
  • He will not be deterred. Aside from walking around in 120-degree heat without a helmet in Iraq, Petraeus understands that ideas won’t win the confidence of his soldiers. War is physical. When things get bad, he says, it’s “about force of will and determination and that we are going to prevail.

— Adapted from “The General’s Dilemma,” Steve Coll, The New Yorker.

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