Don't Look To Generals To Revitalize The GOP

Conservatives need to be wary of the notion that General David Petraeus – or, for that matter, any other general or admiral – is necessarily the answer to their fervent prayers for victory in 2012. GEN Petraeus is a true hero, an awesome leader and a great American whom every citizen owes a debt of gratitude. But politically, he presents an ideological blank slate upon which many on the right are merely projecting their hopes and aspirations. For several reasons, GEN Petraeus is likely to disappoint them.


The most obvious reason is that GEN Petraeus himself has repeatedly and unequivocally rejected the idea of ever running for public office. Cynical observers routinely discount such disclaimers, but there are several reasons to believe that he really means it. As the commander of CENTCOM, responsible for both Iraq and Afghanistan, GEN Petraeus has a full plate and a mission he has not yet completed. He is committed to the mission, and has worked for its success for nearly a decade (I have not worked for GEN Petraeus personally, but I have close friends who have worked directly for him – to the point of receiving emails from him at home at odd hours after their return to civilian life – and they uniformly deeply respect him). He was also diagnosed with prostate cancer. But the most powerful evidence against a possible run is that he has said he would not run. Unlike many in the political arena, his word and a dollar are together worth more than 100 cents.

But assuming he could be enticed to run – say, if he was absolutely convinced that the good of the nation depended upon it – what then? His storied military career and his ability to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat in Iraq via “the Surge” have fueled speculationabout whether he can follow in Eisenhower’s footsteps from the command post to the White House. Like Ike, GEN Petraeus would probably be most comfortable as a Republican. He was registered in the GOP before 2002, when he stopped voting. The American Enterprise Institute recently honored him. And he doesn’t seem like he would have much use for defeatists and pacifists, social parasites or the unbelievably corrupt, so he couldn’t be a Democrat.

But lots of folks have adopted the “Republican” label and proceeded to govern as anything but committed conservatives. It is very likely that GEN Petraeus would prove a major disappointment to the insurgent, activist conservatives currently ascendant in the GOP. Simply put, there is zero evidence that GEN Petraeus fully embraces the aggressive limited government, low tax and pro-personal liberty agenda that is animating the burgeoning Tea Party movement. In fact, his background as a long-serving general officer and the institutional forces that have shaped him make it highly unlikely that he would prove to be the aggressive advocate of modern conservative ideas and priorities we need in 2012 to undo the current administration’s damage.

One needs to understand the world that active duty general officers – particularly four-stars like GEN Petraeus – operate in. As a combatant commander, he flies about the various capitals of the nations within CENTCOM meeting with heads of state and dignitaries. Such a general is surrounded by an entourage that would make Puff Daddy envious – both in terms of size and armament. Moreover, he makes a decision and his subordinates carry it out – there are no 535 bickering, preening senators and congressmen to mollify. This hardly sounds like the background of someone who would enjoy spending months wandering through Iowa listening to poorly-expressed insights on ethanol policy from subsidy-craving corn farmers.

GEN Petraeus was a leader, not a rear echelon-type, and has spent enough time with soldiers himself that he could deal with interacting with the voters better than most actual politicians. But still, a career in the active military creates a mindset that is at odds with the “Don’t tread on me” ethos of the Tea Party faction. National Guard and Reserve generals are somewhat different, with most also having worked and succeeded in the civilian business world too, but senior active duty generals have spent their entire adult lives within a government bureaucracy that unapologetically regulates every detail of its members’ lives. To them, a big government is the normal state of affairs, not a terrifying aberration. My active duty friends sometimes gave me grief as a “weekend warrior,” but I enjoyed watching their reactions when I responded that at least I didn’t live 24/7 in a socialist wonderland, where the government tells me what to do, where to live, what to wear, and who my doctor will be. Of course, that last one no longer applies.

The point is that after three or four decades of existing and succeeding within a bureaucracy, it is perfectly understandable if one accepts some of the basic premises of that bureaucracy. One of those premises is that the collective interest as determined by the leadership always takes precedence over an individual’s interest – something that works well within in the military but which, within the civilian world, is precisely the opposite of the spirit and letter of the Constitution. The messy, free-form vibrancy of entrepreneurial capitalism looks an awful lot like chaos to people who spent their lives in a very rigid hierarchy of well-defined ranks and positions. Entrepreneurialism will naturally be viewed with some degree of suspicion by one whose whole career revolved around central planning.

Many people think generals are all cigar-chomping, tough-talking warriors like Robert Duvall’s Stetson-wearing cavalry commander in Apocalypse Now, but at the level of a David Petraeus it’s much different. It is about achieving consensus. Their job is building and maintaining coalitions not only among different nations but among different services. Negotiation and compromise are the keys, not iconoclasm and flamboyance. Further, institutionally senior military leaders distrust “ideology” – that is, well-formed, coherent sets of beliefs like modern American conservatism. You find Clausewitz on military reading lists, not Mark Levin. Instead, they embrace “pragmatic” and “reasonable” solutions based on the particular situation. They seek to build consensus instead of taking rigid, controversial stands. This is good, even essential, in coalition building, but in American domestic politics it would inevitably lead to RINO-esque, “us too, only less so,” compromises with the progressive agenda.

It was no surprise to see that the last general the Republican Party flirted with, Colin Powell, turned out to be a moderate if not a liberal. Wesley Clark and Joe Sestak make no bones about it – they are actively progressive Democrats. Note also that two of the most frequently frustrating Republican senators, John McCain and Lindsey Graham, both served as senior military officers, holding ranks one step below admiral and general. Their willingness to flirt with “pragmatic compromises” on anathema issues like cap-and-tax and amnesty is well in line with their backgrounds.

This would likely manifest itself in 2012 in ways guaranteed to frustrate the active conservative base. While GEN Petraeus’s exact personal political views are unclear – and properly so – it is safe to say that the policy positions of many active duty generals, in general, would be quite disappointing to conservatives. Generals would be likely to accept the premise of the bailouts because of their natural inclination toward order and against the kind of “creative destruction” that capitalism requires to function. They would likely embrace “common sense” gun control over individual rights. On taxes and spending, they would likely be willing to “compromise” on both – meaning higher taxes and higher spending.

All this aside, the big selling point for a David Petraeus candidacy remains the unfocused idea of his potential to “unify” the county so that Americans can “work together” and “solve problems.” Of course, the last thing America needs right now is unity – it needs debate and argument. The fact is that the big domestic issues America faces – on the size and role of government, on taxes and spending – have notbeen decided, and the notion that some “post-partisan” leader will come along and erase the sharp divide is ridiculous. We need conservative competition with progressive ideology, with powerful, committed advocates of conservative ideas leading the way. We do not need a whitewash of real ideological conflicts in order not to offend the sensibilities of the weak-hearts who get woozy at the thought of people disagreeing.

The unspoken assumption is that David Petraeus is that leader, and that his amazing military record would somehow insulate him from the unseemliness of partisan politics as usual. But those folks were not paying attention when labeled him “General Betray Us” in the New York Times. The second GEN Petraeus tosses his beret into the ring, it becomes open season on the White Knight.

GEN Petraeus is clearly a great man and just as clearly the wrong man for the job of GOP standard bearer in 2012. Now, that could change. The world situation could be such in 2012 that suddenly GEN Petraeus is the obvious choice – say, perhaps, if Iran gets the Bomb and looks like it will use it. And if he somehow runs and is somehow nominated by the GOP, I’ll vote for him. So might a majority of Americans.

But today, the Petraeus bandwagon is nothing more than wishful thinking, much of it by moderates who fear a truly committed ideological conservative nominee. These are the same peerless tacticians who brought us President McCain. They’ve had their chance, and we’re still paying the price for their failure.

Republicans need to get real about 2012. Assuming no huge change in the world situation – a big assumption – we need a truly conservative candidate who is fully and unambiguously committed to the free market, to traditional values, and to a small, limited government. We need to work on leaders who will lead us where we want to go, and not pin our hopes for salvation on a true American hero who may not be quite as conservative as we imagine him to be. And we need GEN Petraeus right where he is.


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