Paul Pillar

Generals as Salesmen

Lieutenant General David M. Rodriguez, who has been directing day-to-day military operations in Afghanistan under the top U.S. commander, General David H. Petraeus, will not be moving up to replace his boss when Petraeus rotates out this summer. Rodriguez will still be getting a fourth star—by becoming head of Forces Command back in the United States—but his not taking over in Afghanistan disappoints many who respect him highly for his knowledge of, and experience with, the war effort in Afghanistan. It seems it's a matter of public relations. According to Greg Jaffe's report in the Washington Post, “the decision to bypass Rodriguez for the top job reflects a determination among senior Pentagon officials that the war needs a commander who can make the case for the increasingly unpopular conflict to Congress, the news media and skeptics in the White House. In Washington, Rodriguez is seen as a savvy fighter but a so-so salesman.”

That's too bad, and not only because it means losing Rodriguez's experience in the campaign in Afghanistan. Opinions about the war in Congress and among the American public ought to be formed based on the U.S. interests at stake in the conflict, the extent to which the mission the U.S. military performs in Afghanistan does or does not contribute to those interests, and whether progress is being made in accomplishing that mission.  Views should not be formed based on the sales ability of the commander.

Americans have had other experiences with image-blessed military commanders affecting their perceptions of a war. The top U.S. commander in Vietnam through the entire period of escalation from an advisory presence to a force of more than a half million troops, General William Westmoreland, was the general from central casting. Square-jawed, handsome, and trim, he inspired Americans' trust in what the U.S. military was doing in that war, until the costs became too great to overlook that his strategy was not working.

Descriptions of Rodriguez suggest an image that is the antithesis of Westmoreland's. Jaffe's article says Rodriguez typically wears a “rumpled, slightly baggy uniform.” In meetings with his staff he fiddles with “smudged, bent reading glasses.” He is a hesitant communicator who uses reminders to himself on index cards when he talks with visitors. He tries to control his swearing. (An aide once counted 92 expletives the general used in a two-hour staff meeting.)

Petraeus has enjoyed a highly favorable public image ever since he came to prominence as a division commander in Iraq, and that image has not always served the public interest as well as it has served Petraeus's interests. Petraeus is unquestionably a very talented military leader. But the tendency to treat him too often not as General Petraeus but instead as Saint David has meant taking for granted things that his commands have been up to that ought to be viewed with greater skepticism and open-mindedness. More important, it has meant equating the mission assigned to Petraeus and his command with larger U.S. interests that go well beyond the command's purview.

In choosing a commander, I would go with the guy in the rumpled uniform and bent reading glasses any day, as long as he had proven himself to be an excellent military leader. I will form my own conclusions about a war, without the aid of a salesman in uniform.