May 24, 2019

Gen. David Petraeus

Gen. David Petraeus joins to discuss Iran and his long career in the military.

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He’s the former CIA director and retired four-star general who rose to fame fighting insurgency, this week on ‘Firing Line.’

In the face of tough enemies in the brutal summer heat of Iraq, coalition and Iraqi security forces have achieved progress.

When David Petraeus took command in Iraq in 2007, the country was on the brink, overtaken by civil war.

There’s a lot of challenges out there, so we’ve got a long way to go.

He is credited with successfully implementing the surge strategy, which focused on protecting Iraqi civilians rather than simply targeting insurgents.
His work there made him the most famous general of his generation.

This man is unique.
He is one of the great leaders.

One of the finest military officers of our time, General David Petraeus.

Now, with tensions rising in Iran…
I’m hearing little stories about Iran.
We have no indication that anything’s happened or will happen, but if it does, it will be met, obviously, with great force.

…and the U.S. inching towards the possibility of another war in the Middle East.

Has the threat of Iran been removed?
No, of course not.

Intentionally or unintentionally, we can create a situation in which a war will take place.

I don’t think we’re gonna need them.
I would certainly send troops if we need them.

What does General Petraeus say now?

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Welcome to ‘Firing Line,’ General Petraeus.

Good to be with you, Margaret, thanks.

Thank you for being here.
You are perhaps the most famous four-star general of the last generation.
And you, as the commander of Central Command, CENTCOM, were in a position of being in charge of all of the war planning with Iran.
National Security Advisor Bolton announced that an aircraft carrier strike group and bombers are heading for the region and has said that ‘any attack on the United States or its allies will be met with unrelenting force.’
The President has been saying things like this.

Well, they were threatening, and we have information — We have information that you don’t want to know about.
They were very threatening, and we just want to have — we have to have great security for this country and for a lot of other places.

What is your assessment of how volatile the region is right now?

Well, the Mideast, overall, is very, very volatile.
It’s also very, very complex.
It’s one of these places where the enemy of my enemy is not necessarily my friend, depending on individual cases.

There are many people on all sides of the political spectrum, however, that have some degree of doubt that tensions need to be escalating right now.
Do you think there is a real threat of military engagement with Iran, or does there need to be?

Well, there certainly is an increased risk of some kind of engagement with Iran.
I’ve said previously that I think it would be very, very foolish for the Iranians to directly engage U.S. forces.
I think the result would be what the President has said.

Is there increased risk because of what we are doing or because of what they’re doing?

It’s a mix of the two, certainly.
We are obviously putting much more pressure on Iran.
Obviously, we, last year, started to reimpose sanctions.
We left the nuclear agreement.

And we left the…
And this is a real concern.
Let’s be very clear that the so-called maligned Iranian activity, this support for the Shia militia, the paramilitaries — Lebanese Hezbollah, Shia militia in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and other places — is a very, very serious threat to the region, as is the missile program that Iran has pursued.
What we’re doing, though, is putting much increased pressure on Iran, really targeting their economy.
That economy is into a significant downturn, depression, and we’re going to keep clamping down on that.

Do you understand what the specific goal is?

Well, I was just going to say that, in fact, the real question, in my mind is, what is the overall goal?
Is it realistically attainable?
If it is, for example, regime change, I tend to doubt that that is attainable within the resources that we would be willing to commit to this.
Certainly not an invasion of Iran.
This is a country that’s more than twice the population of Iraq and three or four times the land mass.
So, again, the question is, what are they trying to achieve?
Is it what Secretary Pompeo says, which is regime behavior change…
Our aim is not war.
Our aim is a change in the behavior of the Iranian leadership.

…or is it — John Bolton said before he rejoined government, that it is regime change.

The declared policy of the United States of America should be the overthrow of the Mullah’s regime in Tehran.
[ Cheers and applause ]
And you’re saying, as a former four-star general with serious expertise in the region, that it’s unclear to you what the United States policy is towards Iran.

No, I think — I actually think I have an understanding, but I’m not sure that it has been as clearly articulated as it might be.

Do you think it’s regime change?

I don’t.
I think that it is short of that.
I think it is more what Secretary Pompeo has said.

Regime behavior change?

And, of course, remember, he articulated 12 demands of Iran.
And the question in my mind then was, ‘Are these non-negotiable?’
in which case, they’re unattainable, because it’s basically unconditional surrender, or are these a departure point from which he would begin negotiations?
And my sense now is that these are the beginning of a negotiation process, and I don’t think that Iran is going to be able to just gut it out until January of 2021 when possibly a new administration comes in.
I think that this is so significant that they are either going to have to come to the table or they’re going to pursue some action through proxies, most likely.

So, in the context of military escalation or military confrontation rather than negotiations?

Well, again, not clear yet, but certainly, those are the alternatives that they’re undoubtedly looking at.
And, of course, it’s now pretty publicly known that there were photos of ships that had missiles emplaced on them.
There have been conversations between those in Tehran and some of the militias about possibly conducting attacks and so forth.
Again, there’s not much specificity about that yet, nor is it at all clear whether that was carried out by proxies of Iran or by Iranian forces or by Sunni extremists.
It’s hard to say.

So, you think that the idea of escalating pressure on Iran is in order to hopefully get them to a place where they will change their behavior.
But there is a lot of skepticism, because of the experience of Iraq and Afghanistan, from critics of the President that this is warmongering.
And there’s a lot fear that this kind of rhetoric mimics the kind of rhetoric that the American public heard in the escalation towards the Iraq War.

I think there’s some grounds for that, but I wouldn’t overdo that.
Iran wants to establish paramilitaries that it controls — Hezbollah in Lebanon — that also get power in the respect of Parliament.
And so they literally have Hezbollah and his coalition have a blocking veto in the Lebanese Parliament.
They’d love to have a similar situation in Iraq.
Not something, by the way, the Iraqis want to embrace, by any means.
In fact, they realize they have to have a relationship with the country to their east that is, again, double its size and is very important to them, economically, and in a variety of other ways.
And they do not want to end up having a war between the United States and Iran on their soil, and I fully understand that.
But the dynamics are very, very difficult and very tricky.

But I think what you just said is, in terms of — that you have some doubt that regime behavior change is attainable with Iran.

I think that is a reasonable question.
And again, the question is, how much change can you get?
How much can you get Iran to stop meddling in other countries’ activities?

What would you do differently that might persuade them to behave differently?

Well, I might consider, perhaps, a bit of message discipline.
That may be commendable.

What do you mean by that?

You know, let’s understand what the goals and objectives and so forth are, and then let’s clearly explain those to the world and, ideally, directly to Iran, if that is possible.

Perhaps have everybody saying the same thing.

That would be helpful, as well.

Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton was actually recently on this program, and he offered his thoughts about what would happen if the United States engaged in a conflict with Iran.
I’m gonna show you what he said.
Could we win a war with Iran?


That didn’t take you a second.

Two strikes — the first strike and the last strike.

Do you think it would be a good idea to go to war with Iran?

No, I don’t advocate military action against Iran.
I’m simply delivering the message that if Iran were to attack the United States, it would be a grave miscalculation on their part, and there would be a furious response.

Do you agree with that assessment?

Well, I would have to ask him, ‘What does winning mean?’
I mean, can we hit Iran with a very, very substantial set of strikes?
Absolutely we can.
What does that win?
I mean, you’re not going to — If ‘win’ means that we’re going to, again, take over Iran, certainly, that’s not attainable with just strikes.
If you want to do a great deal of damage to, say, their nuclear program and perhaps to their ballistic-missile program and a variety of the other military capabilities that concern us, certainly, we can do that.
The question is, what will they do in return?
Keep in mind that there is a lot of American soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines in that region.
There are a lot of American civilians, not just the diplomats and development workers but many, many others.
And there’s a lot of energy infrastructure that is hugely important to the global economy.
Now, again, if they launch missiles at, say, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia or other oil- or gas-producing countries and it’s very clearly from them, there’s very clearly going to be a significant response from the United States and our partners.

And that would justify a response from the United States.

Oh, I think it would.
And again, but they know that.
Again, this is why I say I seriously doubt that they’re going to do something directly to us or to our partners in the Gulf or our ally Israel.
Proxy activity, on the other hand, is not something that is something you can rule out at all.

Well, because it’s not ruled out right now, and it’s currently ongoing in Yemen and throughout the region.

And Iraq and Syria.

And that proxy activity wouldn’t justify, in your view, a military response from the United States?

Well, it depends on what it is.
Again, if it’s very clearly Iranian-supported militias that conduct very clearly direct attacks on U.S. forces, then I think you probably can expect, very clearly, a response to Iran, not just to those militias.
By the way, we defeated these militias in the spring of 2008.
Unfortunately, when ISIS resurfaced, that gave a reason for these militias to once again be back on the streets, in uniform, with weapons.

As the military commander in that region who was quite successful securing the battlefield, given the ongoing political strife and change in political positioning from the United States, how does that affect a commander like yourself?
You had secured Iraq, and you’re talking about the exact same forces that you had previously defeated now posing potentially serious threats to the United States — again.

Well, if I were still in uniform, what I would be doing is asking for a very clear description of what the desired end state is and then work through whether that is realistically attainable, and you have a dialogue with the policymakers over what the military options are, how much risk each would entail, what the likely enemy actions would be in response to our actions, and so forth and so on.

I want to go back to 1974 when you graduated from West Point.
You were near the top of your class, and because of that, you had the ability to pick any division of the Army that you wanted to.
But you chose to serve in the infantry.

If you’re going to be in an institution, an organization, probably the best place to be is what that institution values most highly, and the infantry, certainly then and even now, is arguably still, the essence of the U.S. Army.
What’s interesting is, I was actually majoring in pre-med at West Point, and I actually had a slot in a program, and I recognized that I really didn’t feel a calling to be a doctor, so that plan was shelved, and I chose the infantry.

You came to light especially in Iraq, when the Iraq War was not going well.
You, as I mentioned, commanded the surge strategy, you implemented the surge strategy, which, at the time, when Iraq was spiraling into sectarian violence, rescued the United States from a serious defeat and, by the way, with the Iraqis, enabling political leaders to begin to move towards political stability in Iraq.
And that victory was later, in the eyes of some, squandered by the withdraw of American troops from Iraq and presence from Iraq.
How do you reflect on that now?

Well, I was the CIA director at the time that this discussion was ongoing about whether or not we should leave, say, roughly 10,000 troops — combat troops — in Iraq, because we did leave some trainers and advisers.
The irony, of course, is that, at the end of that administration, we were back in Iraq with combat forces and about 5,000 or 6,000 of them.

You have said that, in terms of political will, in the previous administration to the one you served in CIA director, there were video-conference links with the political leadership of Iraq and the American political leadership every single week, which helped make gains, in terms of security and a political consensus in the country.

Yep. Well, first of all, let’s just recognize that the commitment that President Bush made when he decided on the surge was very substantial.
And, of course, he did this against the advice of a number of his military and civilian advisers.
I mentioned to the President one time when he said, you know, ‘We’re doubling down in Iraq,’ and I said, ‘Mr. President, your military is going all-in, and we need the rest of government to go all-in with us.’
And he worked very, very hard to ensure that all of our different departments and agencies were contributing, because this takes a comprehensive civil-military campaign.
Now, would it have been helpful if it’s successor…
In a sustained effort, yeah.

…if the administration that succeeded the Bush administration had sustained that?
It probably would have.
But let’s recognize that when you have a transition, inevitably, regardless of from whom to whom, there is a sense of, ‘Well, we’re not gonna do what those guys did, because we got elected, and their chosen candidate did not.’
There’s no guarantee that if we’d left 10,000 troops on the ground in Iraq that we could have prevented or dissuaded Prime Minister Maliki from pursuing some of the ruinous political decisions that he chose that enflamed the sectarian tensions that we’d worked during the surge so hard to tamp down.
These actions alienated the Sunnis and tore apart that fabric of society again, and it gave, to some degree, a reason for Al-Qaeda in Iraq now to rise up as the Islamic State.
I can tell you one thing for sure.
Again, no guarantee that 10,000 troops would’ve prevented all that from happening.
But we certainly could have responded much more rapidly when ISIS became the threat, and we could’ve helped our Iraqi partners much sooner.

But it sounds like you’re also saying ISIS could’ve been avoided.

I don’t know that ISIS could’ve been avoided.
Because, again, I don’t know that we could’ve prevented the Prime Minister from taking the actions that he took, which enflamed the Sunni community and then took their eyes off of the remnants of Al-Qaeda in Iraq.
We had destroyed Al-Qaeda in Iraq, not just defeated it.
But we were very, very helpful to the Iraqi counterterrorism service, their special operations, their intelligence to keep an eye on these remnants.
Because, again, you never totally eliminate it.
I mean, the current situation is somewhat similar.
There are tens of thousands, probably, of ISIS survivors that will now resort to insurgent activity and to terrorist activity, and we need to keep an eye on these, and we need to help our partners as we do that.
This is a generational struggle.
This is not a fight where you can take a hill, plant the flag, and go home to a victory parade.

The Trump administration, though, did declare that we’ve defeated ISIS.
Here’s a clip of President Trump.

We just took over — you know, you kept hearing it was 90%, 92% — the Caliphate in Syria.
Now it’s 100% we just took over.
100% Caliphate.
That means the area, the land, we just have 100%. So that’s good.
We did that in a much shorter period of time than it was supposed to be.

What we have done is very significant, but it’s the defeat of ISIS as an army.
ISIS has been — You know, it controlled a ground caliphate.
And that is a huge distinction.
It’s one of the two big distinctions of ISIS.
The other is their skill in cyberspace, the use of social media and the Internet, to rally others to their cause, to communicate, to exhort, and all the rest of this, to inspire.
We have destroyed, or defeated, ISIS as an army.
ISIS as insurgent groups and terrorist elements are going to be something with which the Iraqis and the Syrians and others have to contend for quite some time.

General Westmoreland, who was the commanding general in Vietnam, came on this program with William F. Buckley Jr.
after the Vietnam War, and he had this to say about the battlefield.


I mean, he is, and that man with a bayonet.
An infantry soldier is, rather, the ultimate weapon.

The world has turned many times in the decades since General Westmoreland made that statement.
And now, certainly, a man with a rifle, with a bayonet, soldier on the ground, certainly can be the arbiter on a particular battlefield, but increasingly, that soldier is supported by or even perhaps augmented or replaced by a soldier with a mouse or a joystick, flying an unmanned aerial vehicle, which can conduct a kinetic strike.
Certainly, in the fight against ISIS, it took infantrymen on the ground — Iraqi, Syrian, and so forth — with our support, but our support was unmanned aerial vehicles, it was a fusion of all different forms of intelligence and advice and assistance and training and equipping.
So we actually were able to defeat ISIS, and I give the previous administration credit for getting this going, for not only returning forces to Iraq and then, ultimately, to Syria, but also to enabling others rather than us doing all of it ourselves, and that is a very significant distinction, because if you accept, as I believe is the case, that we are engaged in a generational struggle, you then have to have a sustained commitment.
But, of course, a commitment can only be sustained in a democracy if it is sustainable, in terms of the expenditure of blood and treasure.

After leaving Central Command, you went to Afghanistan at the request of President Obama.
And Afghanistan, now 17 years in, is a war that Americans increasingly don’t understand why we’re there.
And I wonder if the largest failure, in the context of Afghanistan, is a communications failure to the American people, that this would necessarily be a sustained commitment over many, many years.

What I tried to do then and what I’ve continued to try to do after leaving government is to remind us why we went to Afghanistan, and it’s because that’s where the 9/11 attacks were planned, that’s where the initial training of the attackers was conducted, in a sanctuary that Al-Qaeda had under Taliban rule at that time.
And we went in to eliminate that sanctuary, and we have stayed to ensure that it stays eliminated.

Do we have a clear mission in Afghanistan now?

I think we do.
I think the mission is, again, to ensure that Al-Qaeda and now ISIS cannot re-establish that sanctuary and to carry out actions in the region that are — that come from platforms in Afghanistan to disrupt.

How about negotiations with the Taliban, then?

I have some degree of reservation about the prospects for these negotiations.
I find it unlikely that we will get a settlement that we would accept or that would be acceptable to the Afghan leadership, which is, of course, democratically elected.
Keep in mind that the Taliban have not even allowed the democratically elected leadership of Afghanistan to have representatives in these meetings, which gives me considerable pause.
Beyond that, let’s also remember that the Taliban are only one of a number of insurgent and extremist groups on the battlefield making life difficult for the Afghans and for coalition forces.
And, frankly, the sooner we say, ‘Look, we’re willing to stay here for a long period of time to support our Afghan partners and to ensure that our national interests of preventing re-establishment of a sanctuary for extremists is accomplished,’ then you might actually get some reasonable negotiations.
You’re not going to get them when it’s very clear that the administration wants to leave Afghanistan.
That’s not a position of strength from which to negotiate.

You were under consideration to be Secretary of State in the Trump presidency, and you have a lifelong track record of service to this country.
Might there be an opportunity for you to serve again as a civilian?

I don’t think you can ever rule out something like that.
I think if a President asks you to serve your country that you, at the very least, have to give it very serious consideration.
I remember when President Obama asked me to go to Afghanistan, I said the only answer to a question like that is yes.
Now, having said that, I do think that there has to be sufficient alignment between the views that, say, a head of an administration or a president holds, in your views.
In fact, when I had my ‘Celebrity Apprentice’ moment in Trump Tower, meeting with the President, which got a favorable tweet, as you may recall, both of us were trying to determine, in a sense, is each of us compatible, in terms of policy views.
It was very interesting.
I mean, I asked him a question.
We actually went back and forth.
Actually, he’d have two for every one of mine, but, I mean, at one point, he asked me, ‘Should we have a wall, General?’
and I said, ‘Of course we should have a wall, Mr. President — where we don’t have a wall, where it would actually do some good, where it’s overwatched by Border Patrol and has a response force — but if and only if it’s part of a comprehensive, overarching security strategy,’ which includes a lot of other elements than just walls.
It would include more people, more technology, more sharing of intelligence with our Mexican partners, more going to the source of these would-be asylum seekers.

Sounds like you’re interested.

Well, again, I think you have to have policy alignment, and I’m not sure that that is the case.

Your wealth of wisdom has been an enormous service to this country, for which we thank you.

Been the greatest of privileges.

Whether you rejoin government in this administration or the next, I hope you’ll return to ‘Firing Line.’

Well, thanks for having me.

Thank you for coming.

My pleasure.

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