Lunch with the FT: David Petraeus

On the dot of noon, as agreed, General David Petraeus strolls into the Four Seasons Restaurant. His arrival causes a flurry among the floor staff. Dressed in a navy blue suit and plain red tie, the former CIA chief is businesslike — in keeping with his new role on Wall Street. When I inquire what keeps him busy nowadays his answer goes on for so long I half regret asking. In addition to a lucrative job in private equity and a clutch of teaching jobs, he is “on the [paid] speaking circuit.” Chuckling, and in an apparent reference to Bernie Sanders’ attacks on Hillary Clinton’s gilded speaking career, he adds: “Many have noted it is the highest form of white-collar crime.” Only when I touch on the scandal that ended his meteoric public career does he assume a crisper tone.

Just four years ago, Petraeus was lionised as the Douglas MacArthur of his generation. Even discounting the hype, he stood head and shoulders above other US generals. In the depths of the Iraq war, when the country was undergoing death by a thousand improvised explosive devices, he was dubbed “King David” of Mosul — a city he cleared and held before it fell back into rebel hands. He was then appointed chief architect of George W Bush’s 2007 Iraq surge and, after a stint as head of the Pentagon’s Central Command, Barack Obama put him in charge of his own surge in Afghanistan. His reward was to be made head of the Central Intelligence Agency in 2011. Many thought the CIA was a springboard for Petraeus’s own presidential ambitions. America loves a successful general and his approval ratings were stratospheric. Could anything stand in his way?

The answer was yes — David Petraeus himself. Shortly after Obama’s re-election in 2012, Petraeus abruptly resigned from the CIA when it emerged he had shared eight notebooks of classified information with his biographer, Paula Broadwell. They had also had an affair. Rarely has a fall from grace been so brutal. It did not help that Broadwell’s fulsome biography was entitled All In: The Education of General David Petraeus. It was a gift to late-night comics. Following a long investigation, Petraeus, who had pleaded guilty to the unauthorised removal of classified information, was fined $100,000. Some thought him lucky to escape jail. Either way, his downfall was absolute (he remains married to his wife Holly). Almost a year after the dust has settled, I email Petraeus to invite him to do a Lunch with the FT. His acceptance pops up within minutes.

The restaurant is just a short walk from Petraeus’s Manhattan office. For the past three years, he has been a partner at the private equity group, Kohlberg Kravis Roberts (KKR), the original barbarians at the gate. The revolving door between senior Pentagon figures and the defence sector is long established but Petraeus has changed precedent by moving on to Wall Street. Having been the pre-eminent military proconsul of his day, his global Rolodex was ripe for monetising. I ask what he misses most about public life. “The single biggest difference between what I did then and what I do now is that you’re not the leader — Centcom (US Central Command) was nearly 250,000 US servicemen, Iraq was 165,000 Americans alone . . . At the CIA the number is classified. I would have four or five speechwriters at a time . . .”

Without a cue, our waiter delivers a large plate of celery, carrots and cauliflower. “Ah thank you, that is just what I needed — how did you know?” says the general jokingly. I cast around for a bowl of mayonnaise or cocktail sauce to jazz up the vegetables. “No, there’s no dip with it,” Petraeus tells me. “You’re having lunch with a healthy guy.” As I try to keep pace with his industrious crunching, I remember reading somewhere that Petraeus likes to relax by discussing the rise of Isis over a glass of Pinot Noir. But today he declines wine, saying it’s “too early in the day for me”. He orders a tuna tartare with crème fraîche for his starter. I choose asparagus soup.

With our starters before us, I judge this a good moment to broach Petraeus’s most neuralgic subject. Before our lunch, he sent several emails listing his dizzying range of activities, and implying he would be happier if we steered clear of delicate topics, although he accepted my insistence that nothing was off limits. So what did he learn from his fall from grace?

He answers without pause and often in the third person. “Do some soul-searching and reflection, draw appropriate lessons and drive on,” he says. “It’s not like I hadn’t experienced adversity in the past. Being in combat is not unending high-five moments. But it’s different when it’s self-inflicted. Somebody sent me a note that said, ‘Don’t tell me how high the guy jumped, tell me how high the guy jumped after being knocked back down.’ Obviously resilience matters. I was no stranger to adversity but it’s different when it’s personal. Not something I would recommend.”

His last sentence is delivered with an air that suggests the topic is closed but I decide it’s worth another stab. Has humiliation made him stronger? He does not skip a beat, though continues to sidestep the first person. “It’s one of those deals,” he says. “You add a couple of extra rocks to your rucksack. You take a knee for a while and gather strength and drive on. At a certain point you have to take the rear view mirrors off the bus and focus forward and that’s what we’ve sought to do.”

So never look back, I ask? “I actually outlined a book during my — what was it Churchill called it? his black dog days? I mean, obviously, very suddenly transitioning from being what people are saying is a bulletproof individual to firing yourself, and then casting about for things to do, I outlined a book on leadership.” The planned title was: “Relentless: Leadership Lessons Learned — some the hard way”. Would it have been confessional, I asked? “People have tried to coax that from me but I am not lying on my back on a couch. I just say: ‘Look, I’ve turned a page, my past is over. I’m focusing on the future’.”

I decide it would be wise to pivot in another direction. We are now prodding at our main courses — Petraeus has a plate of poached salmon; I’m eating grilled branzino. Was the 2003 invasion of Iraq a mistake? “That’s a question I will never address,” he says, recalling how as the commander of the surge and then the head of Centcom he “wrote more letters of condolence to America’s mothers and fathers than any other individual”.

What lessons should the US draw from Iraq though? Was today’s Isis insurgency not born of post-invasion mistakes? Petraeus agrees with much of the critique that blunders were made in the early US occupation. “There is no question that two decisions early on created enormous problems that continue to this day,” he said. The first was de-Ba’athification, which rooted out former Saddam Hussein loyalists from government jobs. The second was demobilisation of the Iraqi military, which threw a lot of angry — and often armed — men on the streets. “We had a question on the wall of our operation centre in Mosul,” he says. “‘Will a policy take more bad guys off the street than put them on?’” and if the answer is no then you should go sit under a tree until the thought goes away. You can’t put people out of work and not tell them how they’re going to get food on their table. Enormous damage was done that continues to haunt Iraq to this day.”

Petraeus concedes that the US should also draw a lesson of humility from the episode. Yet his cure for today’s crises is for more US intervention, only better executed. “Ungoverned spaces in the Islamic world will be exploited by people who wish us ill, they will not be contained,” he says. “Syria is a veritable political Chernobyl — tsunamis of refugees, contributing to extremist activity even in our own homeland. US leadership is imperative. There is no substitute.”

Aren’t the US’s biggest challenges here at home, I ask Petraeus? We’re talking just days before Donald Trump has become all but inevitably the Republican candidate for president. Polls show an outsize share of servicemen and women support Trump. Petraeus ducks the opportunity to criticise Trump. “There are signs Trump is already beginning to moderate his positions,” he replies. “What Trump and [Bernie] Sanders have tapped into is something real — it is way beyond, soldiers, sailors and marines. It is about Americans losing confidence their sons and daughters will do better than they do.”

Our main courses finished, Petraeus orders a bowl of mixed berries with cream. He also asks for a coffee. I skip dessert for a double espresso. The waiter then gives us a glass each of fragrant-smelling limoncello on the house. “Uh oh,” says Petraeus. He takes a large sip. “Very good,” he tells the waiter. Having consumed about a third, he adds, “Too good. Take it away.”

In recent weeks, given the turmoil in the Republican party, some insiders fantasised about the idea of a “white knight” figure coming forward to save the establishment. Petraeus’s name had surfaced a few times. How did he react to that?

“The individuals putting those trial balloons up should be subjected to drug tests,” Petraeus replies. “I actually confronted a very senior member of the White House when I was at Centcom and said: ‘I am not going to be a candidate for elected office any time. Period. I know that your genetic code does not accept that someone would not want to run for office and ultimately the highest office in the land, but please understand that I don’t’.” He continues. “Times have changed. You can’t be a retired general at Columbia University and suddenly you’re Eisenhower running for president,” he says. “What was that country song? ‘Which part of ‘no’ don’t you understand?’”

Yet Petraeus is evidently angling for a return to public life. Indeed, judging by his list of the Senate testimonies that he has addressed recently, the general is vigorously putting himself about. A few days before we meet he wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post setting out how the US can defeat Isis, and today he has helpfully brought along a sheaf of papers he has written on grand themes of the day. It seems improbable he is casting around for think-tank sinecure. “I’m completely non-partisan,” Petraeus continues. “I have served both Republican and Democrat presidents in very senior positions. Let’s see what comes along.”

I ask him how he would rate the Obama presidency. “I’ll leave that to historians,” he says. What did he think of Obama’s recent Atlantic Monthly interview in which he criticised US allies as free riders? “There are a number of responses in that interview that I think legitimately raised a lot of eyebrows around the world,” he says. “Comments on allies, shortly before visiting a number of them, just seemed to reflect a degree of frustration in a final year that I know folks in the White House look back on and — well, there’s a little bit of an intake of breath.”

Clearly enjoying what he calls the “rapid fire” format, Petraeus awaits the next question. We have been talking for almost two hours. Should Edward Snowden be prosecuted, I ask? “Unquestionably,” he replies. “If Snowden had wanted to help that debate he could have very easily been a whistleblower who could have gone to the appropriate organisation and offered his views. He didn’t.”

Should a transgendered soldier be eligible to become chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, I blurt out? Petraeus looks startled. “This is so hypothetical it’s not even worth addressing,” he replies. After a pause: “But there are standards for actions — you can’t hit on anybody else in the military. Any fellow soldier. Doesn’t matter if you’re a guy, a girl, or whatever other category, if standards are established, then someone who meets those should be capable of doing anything.” I feel mildly embarrassed. “Look in the grand scheme of intellectual challenges . . . ” He trails off.

“This has been enjoyable,” says Petraeus, rising from the table. As we leave, a diner rushes forward to shake his hand and says “Semper fi” (always faithful) — the US marine corps’ motto. Although not a marine, Petraeus smiles. “Thank you,” he says. “That’s a nice thing to say.” He departs, as he arrived, very much the general, with onlookers paying their respects at every turn. Minus the uniform, I muse, little has changed. The general is clearly hoping to lead another surge — this time to resurrect his own career — with Washington as his theatre of action.

This article was first published May 6, 2016. The author, Edward Luce, is the FT’s chief US commentator. The illustration is by James Ferguson.

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