David Petraeus had a rule when he was in command in Afghanistan and Iraq: “Be first with the truth.”
But that’s about as critical as Petraeus is willing to be of Trump, a president who could hardly be more different than the warrior-intellectual whose pronouncements on the progress of America’s wars were once treated like thunder from Mt. Olympus. Today, he doesn’t quite hold the same grip on the public esteem, but he was strikingly bullish on a president who’s been compared to a “wrecking ball” liable to start World War III—and that’s just the criticism from Republicans.
Like a soldier walking through a minefield, Petraeus stepped gingerly through his answers. Though he repeated that he’s ruled out ever running for office, Petraeus confirmed he has spoken with the Trump administration about being secretary of state and national security adviser and says he’d still be interested about going in, “but it would have to be a specific set of circumstances or be, frankly, certain conditions.” He wouldn’t say what those were but noted they were part of the conversation he had with Trump a year ago when Rex Tillerson was offered Foggy Bottom instead.
Which is not to say that Petraeus has nothing better to do: Five years after resigning from Langley following the revelation that he’d had an affair with his biographer, had shared classified material with her and then misled the FBI about what he’d done, Petraeus is living a flush life, and a pretty public one.
Sitting in a conference room at the investment firm KKR, overlooking Central Park, he was wearing a 101st Airborne Screaming Eagles tie clip and Great Seal of the United States cuff links, talking about how he’d been in 22 countries just this year, in between gigs like his one-week residency at the University of Southern California and a weekend of seminars at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library earlier in the month. Petraeus serves on the board of a dozen veterans groups, conducting interviews of his own at the 92nd Street Y with the likes of Ron Chernow and J.D. Vance.
Ask him about Michael Flynn, and Petraeus will gush about how talented and critical he was in intelligence operations, and how tragic his downfall since has been. Ask him about his own history of not being fully forthright with the FBI, and he bristles. There’s no comparison between the two situations, Petraeus insists: “I’m not going to compare or contrast at all, so just move on.”
Petraeus still talks to top members of Trump’s national security team. Defense Secretary James Mattis was a fellow division commander in Iraq and collaborator on the Counterinsurgency Field Manual. National security adviser H.R. McMaster was his mentee and remains a friend. He’s watching from a perch that’s informed but at a distance, more open to Trump than many and still saying nothing that might foreclose a job offer—though he notes that saying during the campaign that Hillary Clinton would have been a “tremendous president” didn’t keep him from having an interview in Trump Tower.
A famously prolific and fast emailer, Petraeus is not on Twitter, but people send him the president’s tweets—which he argues aren’t really the most reliable guide to the president’s foreign policy. “What you should follow more is the troops, the money and the substance of policies, which we can overlook if we get too mesmerized by reading tweets,” he says.
What he sees, in addition to moves he applauds, like Trump’s transfer of more authority to generals in the field, is that for all the president’s inflammatory rhetoric, his foreign policy has been “more continuity than you might have expected.”
Petraeus does worry about Trump’s “occasional ambivalence about what does ‘America First’ mean relative to the traditional role of the United States in the post-World War II era and, particularly, in the post-Cold War era,” and there has not been the same kind of very aggressive promotion of the virtues of democracy, free-market economics.
“American foreign policy does swing between so-called realism and idealism. But recent presidents certainly have been very active and vocal in, again, promoting those aspects, believing that, again, the more democracy in the world, the better for the United States, the more these values and freedoms and so forth are embraced, and the better for our country as well,” he said, acknowledging that attacks on journalists aren’t in keeping with the democratic spirit.
Keeping faith with his own rule about pushing out information on the battlefield, Petraeus said, wasn’t easy. Insurgents would rush out information—claims of soldiers killed or atrocities they said troops had committed or victories achieved— and people all over the world would start running with it. Sometimes there’d be doctored videos, or partial information. News alerts would go out. Headlines would appear.
There’s what Petraeus sees as the appropriate approach—move quickly, because command of information is important, but “you have to be very measured and very careful and stay sort of brutally honest with yourself as well as with the American public,” he said—and the larger, ultimately self-defeating risk of tilting toward propaganda and twisted information: “You can’t cede that ground to the extremists or the insurgents.”
“You are in a competitive endeavor, but you cannot put lipstick on pigs. If it’s a disaster, if it’s a tragic event, you’ve just got to go out and acknowledge it and not try to, again, cover it in any kind of cosmetic thing,” he said.
That was Petraeus’ approach to his own downfall, a humiliating event for a proud and accomplished man. In those first days after resigning, he did his own personal after-action report. If he’d written a book about that experience, he says in a line he likes to use, he’d have titled it Relentless: Leadership Lessons Learned … Some the Hard Way.
Lessons are only really learned, he says, when they change behavior going forward.
How does that apply to the relationship with Russia?
“Collectively, the United States has learned that Vladimir Putin, again, wants to undermine the most basic freedoms and liberties and the entire system that many of us have fought to protect and preserve as the democratic system,” Petraeus said.
In the White House, in Congress?
“Congress certainly has,” he said, pointing to the sanctions bill that was passed over Trump’s objections.
Has the White House? The president?
“I suspect the White House has,” was all he would say. “Again, I don’t know.”