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David Petraeus
David Petraeus
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David Petraeus Interview

Strategic Military Leadership

September 13, 2014
San Francisco, California

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  David Petraeus

You've experienced very demanding physical discipline, at West Point and as an Army Ranger. Would you also say there's always been an intellectual component to your approach as a military leader?

David Petraeus: I think that's an accurate depiction. I did always cherish, frankly, physical fitness activities, various sports. Frankly, competitions. In fact, we used to have a saying in many of the units which I served, "Life is a competitive endeavor." There's nothing more competitive, obviously, than combat. I had a captain walk in one time when I was a lieutenant colonel, a battalion commander. He was this incredibly inspirational company commander. He had a great sense of humor as well. He walked into the office and he said, "Sir, winners win stuff every now and then." And I said, "That's very profound, Fred. Thank you very much." But he was exactly right. And we tried, we did our best. Now occasionally you have to compete to be the best team player you can be in a collective organization. So you want to compete fairly. You want to compete. When you don't bring home the gold, you've got to be graceful in defeat as well as in victory. So there was always a physical piece to that. In fact, I just had a run along the water here in San Francisco, six miles -- it was awesome -- and hit the gym. There is something about that that I think is terrific. But there is the affinity for, I guess, the intellectual side of it, for the thinking side of it, for trying to identify the right big ideas. They may be new big ideas. They may be old big ideas. But it has to be the right strategy. It has to be the right approach. And I did put a fair amount into that.

When I was a three-star commander out of Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, it was the year that we did the Counterinsurgency Field Manual. We had all the pre-command course students there, so I would talk to them for 90 minutes each time. It was once a month. It was all the future battalion and brigade commanders, and their command sergeants major as well. I would ask them how many had written this command philosophy letter that everybody wrote. And, you know, all hands. And how some had done 20 drafts. And I used to say, "Tear it up. They're meaningless." You know, it was a big blow to them. "My God, tear up my command philosophy?" So one page usually -- they're all the same. It says "Mission first, troops always," somewhere in there. Some are more eloquent than others. And I said, "Instead, focus on what the big five areas of focus are going to be for your unit. And don't just identify them, then figure out what are the actual programs that will operationalize those areas of focus." So if you say, again, physical fitness, which is a pretty good big five if you're, say, an air assault or airborne infantry unit, as I was privileged to command. What does that mean? What are the standards? What's the standard for a four-mile run? For various other events? How often do you road march? How do you earn excellence? What happens if someone is inadequate, is in a sense, deficient? What are the penalties? What are the rewards? What are the incentives? What are the various activities, the components? Oh, by the way, is it more than just sort of physical training? Is it also, perhaps, health? Smoking cessation is a big one that we used to focus on. No dipping was another one, believe it or not. It was a huge epidemic for a while.

[ Key to Success ] Preparation

That's fascinating.

David Petraeus Interview Photo
David Petraeus: In infantry units, in particular. Use of alcohol and so forth. How do you, again, operationalize this, and spend time on that? That takes serious thinking and a huge amount of very, very hard work. It's not easy. I've often said that big ideas don't hit you on the head like Newton's apple if you sit under the right tree. You have to really work at them. You get hit by a little seed of a big idea, and you involve as many people in it as you can. It's an inclusive process. Then, like someone with clay, you shape it. You try it. You throw it at the wall and see if it sticks. But that's how you ultimately arrive at good big ideas. I'll talk more about that in the concept of strategic leadership.

What do you think President Bush saw in you that caused him to pluck you out of the chain of command?

David Petraeus: I'd only met him a few times at that point in time. I hosted him for a full day at Fort Campbell, Kentucky when I was a two-star, after I came home from the first year in Iraq as the Commander of the 101st Airborne Division for the fight to Baghdad, and then the subsequent beginning of the counterinsurgency campaign in Mosul. Indeed, I'd like to think our division had some unique approaches, but they didn't all survive, unfortunately. The reconciliation issue in particular was not supported in Baghdad, and it was reversed after we left.

But you did have some success, at least for a time.

David Petraeus: We had some pretty good period there, and it was seen as an area that, I guess, was what "right" looks like, if you will. He came out to see us and that was a wonderful day, actually. I was really impressed by the President and the amount of time that he spent. I think we'd probably lost 60 soldiers at that point at Fort Campbell, not just in the 101st, but some also in the 160 Special Ops Aviation, Special Forces Group. The family members of each of those soldiers were positioned all the way around in the museum at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. He spent a full five minutes, I think, with every single one of them. He was so far off schedule it wasn't funny. I was sent back, of course, fairly soon actually after getting home, to establish the so-called "Train and Equip" mission to try to develop, train -- really recruit, train, equip -- develop all the forces of the Ministry of Interior and the Ministry of Defense, including the ministries themselves ultimately. Not to mention building all the infrastructure that they need and all the doctrine, every piece of a modern military and, again, police force in all respects. It was a gargantuan task. That was a 15-and-a-half month tour. I had actually been sent back to do an assessment of the Iraqi Security Forces shortly after I got home as a two-star. I came back and reported to Secretary Rumsfeld. Then essentially his reward for that was, "Okay, go over there and implement what it is you say you need to do." So we did, and we made a great deal of progress, although this was an effort -- it was truly Sisyphean in some respects, and it really was pushing a stone up the hill.

[ Key to Success ] Preparation

He did know that we had written the Counterinsurgency Field Manual while I was at Leavenworth after coming back. He (President Bush) called me in after I came back as a three-star. I remember I gave him some fairly frank assessments and I'd written something up. I hadn't cleared it with the Secretary or the Chairman. And you know, I'm just a three-star at this point, and you got all the National Security team there in the Oval Office. But then he starts asking, "So what are your takeaways? What are your conclusions? What about this guy? What about that guy?" And it was a wonderful conversation. Perhaps he remembered that later on. I think he actually took me out and did a Rose Garden (event) saying thank you, or maybe in the Oval Office as well. But the truth is, what happened I think is, as the situation in Iraq spiraled downward so seriously -- in 2006 in particular, after the bombing of this very sacred Shia shrine north of Baghdad, it just unleashed sectarian violence between Shia and Sunni, and it played -- and Al Qaeda wanted that to happen. They wanted to be a catalyst for civil war, frankly, to tear the country apart. It was very, very serious. He had different individuals in to advise him. They did not always agree on the way forward, frankly. Some said there should be a surge. Others said you should hand it off quicker and get out. Others said put more Special Forces in, that'll solve it. But apparently, they typically agreed that what he also should do is actually send me over there, back over there. So that's what happened, obviously. I remember going to see him after we had the confirmation hearing, and I think I gave him a signed copy of the Counterinsurgency field manual. I said, "Well, this is what we're going to implement." And he said, "Yeah, yeah." And he said, "I guess we're doubling down, General." And I said, "Mr. President, we're not 'doubling down' in the military. We're going 'all in,' and we need all the rest of the government to go all in as well." And he really pushed that.

He had such unbelievable focus on the effort in Iraq. The week in Washington, every Monday morning, began at 7:30 with the entire National Security Team around the Situation Room table, the President at the head and Ambassador Ryan Crocker on a video teleconference, for an entire hour. It started promptly on time. It ended on time. It was all dialogue between him and us, and occasionally someone else could chime in. It was not asking the people around the table how they thought it was going. It was going directly to the two of us that were most charged now. Now they had the Central Command Commander would be on video teleconference, and of course the Chairman and the Secretary and the Secretary of State and others were all there. But again, it was dialogue between the three of us generally, and it was quite an extraordinary degree of focus. In fact, then the Secretary of Defense would have one with me the next day. And then most weeks, Prime Minister Maliki had one with the President that Ambassador Crocker and I would also attend. So there was a huge amount of focus from the White House, from the President, and that obviously galvanized all of the Executive Branch to try to do as much as they could to retrieve what was a very, very desperate situation.

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