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

SOT PETRAEUS:  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 

SOT Petraeus: 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

SOT McCain: This man is unique. He is one of the great leaders.  

SOT Obama: One of the finest military officers of our time, Gen David Petraeus

Now, with tensions rising in Iran

SOT TRUMP I’m hearing little stories about Iran//xif they do anything, they will suffer greatly 

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

SOT Sen JOHN KENNEDY: Has the threat of Iran been removed? No of course not

SOT BERNIE SANDERS: Intentionally or unintentionally we can creAte a situation in which a war will take place 

SOT TRUMP: I dont think we’ll need them, we’ll send them if we need them

What does general Petraeus say now?

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HOOVER: Welcome to Firing line General Petraeus. 


PETRAEUS: Good to be with you, Margaret, thanks. 


HOOVER: Thank you for being here. You are Perhaps the most famous four star general of the last generation. 


HOOVER: Another area where that expenditure of blood and treasure is questioned right now at least in the headlines is in the context of the increasing tension between Iran and the United States. 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. The National Security Adviser, Bolton, announced that an aircraft carrier strike group. And bombers are heading to 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. 


TRUMP SOT: 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 risk.


HOOVER: What is your assessment of how volatile the region is right now.


PETRAEUS: 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 


HOOVER: 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.


PETRAEUS: 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 were the Iranians to directly engage U.S. forces. I think the result would be what the president has said–


HOOVER: Is there increased risk because of what we are doing or because of what they’re doing.


PETRAEUS: It’s a mix of the two certainly we are obviously putting much more pressure on Iran. Obviously we last year started to re-impose sanctions. We left the nuclear–


HOOVER: And we left the newly–

PETRAEUS: and this is over real concern. Let’s be very clear that the so-called malign Iranian activity– the 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–

HOOVER: Do you understand what the strategic goal is?

PETRAEUS: 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, it’s 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 landmass. So again the question is what are they trying to achieve.


 Is it what Secretary Pompeo says which is regime behavior change


ADDED SB POMPEO: Our aim is to not have war. Our aim is a change in the behavior of the Iranian leadership or is it what John Bolton said before he rejoined government that it is regime change.


SB BOLTON But The declared policy of the United States of America should be the overthrow of the mullahs regime in Tehran


HOOVER: And you’re saying is, as a formerly a four star general with serious expertise in the region that it’s unclear to you what the United States policy is towards Iran?


PETRAEUS: 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. 


HOOVER: Do You think it’s regime change. 


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


HOOVER: Regime  behavior change. 


PETRAEUS: Yes, 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 are unattainable because it’s basically unconditional surrender or are these the departure point from which you begin negotiations. My sense now is that these are the beginning of the negotiation process and I don’t think that Iran is going to be able to just gut it out until January of 2021 when they 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. We still don’t know whether it’s–


HOOVER: So in the context of a military escalation or a military confrontation rather than negotiations.


PETRAEUS: 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 and placed on them, there had 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.


HOOVER: 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 of fear that this kind of rhetoric mimics the kind of rhetoric that the American public heard in the escalation towards the the Iraq war.


PETRAUES: 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 then also get power in the respective parliament. And so they literally have Hezbollah and its 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 again is double its size and is very important to them economically in a variety of other ways. But they don’t want to become the fifty first state of Iraq 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.


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


PETRAEUS: 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



**HOOVER: What would you do differently that might persuade them. 


PETRAEUS: Well I might might consider perhaps a bit of message discipline that may be commendable.


HOOVER: What do you mean by that.


PETRAEUS: 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 


HOOVER: Perhaps have everybody saying the same thing.


PETRAEUS:That would be helpful as well.**


HOOVER: 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 going to show you what he said.


FIRING LINE SOT: Could we win a war with Iran. Yes. 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.


HOOVER: Do you agree with that assessment. 


PETRAEUS: Well I would have to ask him what does winning mean.[****PUT BACK] By the way I know Senator Cotton I remember he was on the battlefield in Iraq and we’re grateful for his service and all the others needless to say. Again what does winning you 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 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 its very clearly from them there’s very clearly going to be a significant response from the United States and its partners–


HOOVER: And that would justify a response from the United States.


PETRAEUS: 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 you can rule out at all.


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


PETRAUES: and Iraq and Syria 


HOOVER: And that proxy activity wouldn’t justify in your view a military response.


PETRAEUS: Well it depends 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. 


HOOVER: As the military commander in that region who was quite successful at 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’ve previously defeated now posing potentially serious threats to the United States Again.


PETRAEUS: **** [PUT BACK] Well again this illustrates what I’ve described earlier which is that this is a  [10:43:40] Long term threat again not just from the Sunni extremist ISIS but also certainly from Iran. And I mean 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 with the likely enemy actions would be in response to our actions and so forth and so on. 


HOOVER: 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.  Why. 


PETRAEUS: 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 it was certainly then and even now arguably still the essence of the US Army. What’s interesting is I was actually majoring in premed at West Point and I actually had a slot in a program and I recognized that I really didn’t feel the calling to be a doctor. So that plan was shelved and I chose the infantry


HOOVER: You came to light especially in Iraq when the Iraq war was not going well. you as I mentioned commanded the surge strategy and 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 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 withdrawal of American troops from Iraq and presence from Iraq. How do you reflect on that. Now.



PETRAEUS: Well I was a 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 in there about five or six thousand of them


HOOVER: You have said though that in terms of political will, in the previous administration than when 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 helped make gains in terms of a real political. Security and a political consensus in the country


PETRAEUS: 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. 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 in assisting us–


HOOVER: in a sustained effort, Yeah. 


PETRAEUS: 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 going to do what those guys did because we got elected and their chosen candidate did not.  there is no guarantee that if we’d left 10000 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 inflamed the sectarian tensions that we’d work 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 Al-Qaeda in Iraq reason to rise up as the Islamic State. I can tell you one thing for sure – no guarantee that 10,000 troops would have prevented all of that from happening. But we certainly could have responded much more rapidly when ISIS became the threat and we could have helped our Iraqi partners much sooner.


HOOVER: But it sounds like you’re also saying. ISIS could have been avoided.


PETRAEUS: I don’t know that ISIS could have been avoided because again I don’t know that we could have prevented the prime minister from taking the actions that he took which inflamed the Sunni community and then took it took their eyes off of the remnants of al-Qaida in Iraq. we had destroyed al-Qaida 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. I mean the current situation. Is somewhat similar. The Iraqi security forces with our help very considerable help but not on the frontlines. They’ve done the frontline fighting and they have defeated the Islamic State in Iraq. Syrian Democratic Forces have done the same thing in Syria but there are tens of thousands probably of ISIS survivors that will now resort to insurgent activity into 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.


HOOVER: The Trump administration though did declare that we have defeated ISIS. Here’s a clip of President Trump.




PETRAEUS: 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 that 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. We have destroyed or defeated ISIS as an army but 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. 


HOOVER: General Westmoreland who is 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. 


BUCKLEY CLIP: B: What sympathy do you have if any for the position of Senator Gary Hart that the United States military has evolved to the point where what we have to offer. Is high technology and a small amount of manpower. We have neutron bombs. We have cruise missiles. Under the circumstances it is unrealistic to suppose that there is a theater in which American infantry would figure heavily. And he points out look how much he is five hundred and fifty thousand American troops were to us South Vietnam. W: Those 5000 troops could have done the job if they’d been allowed to do it. But. Senator Hart in. My opinion is not thinking realistically if you look into history frankly every war has been solved. The man on the ground with a bayonette. I mean he is in that man with a bayonet that every soldier is rather the ultimate weapon.


PETRAEUS: You know 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 conducting 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 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 was 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 that commitment can only be sustained in a democracy if it is sustainable in terms of the expenditure of blood and treasure.*


HOOVER: after leading 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. **** [PUT BACK]. By not building. [10:44:48] That understanding with the American people. It risks erosion. 


PETRAEUS: what I tried to do then and what I continue to try to do after leaving government is to remind.  us why we went to Afghanistan. And just 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  

HOOVER: Do we have a clear mission in Afghanistan now?


PETRAEUS:  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 or that come from platforms in Afghanistan to disrupt-


HOOVER:  How about negotiations with the Taliban then?


PETRAEUS: 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 allow 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. You also have the Haqqani Network you have al-Qaida you have ISIS you have the Islamic movement of Uzbekistan. 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 interest of preventing re-establishment of a sanctuary for extremists is accomplished then 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.


HOOVER: 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. 


PETRAEUS: I don’t think you can ever rule out something like that. I think if the president asked you to serve your country that you at the very least have to give it very serious consideration. I mean when President Obama asked me to go to Afghanistan I said that the the only answer to a question like that is is yes. Now having said that I do think that there has to be sufficient alignment between the views that that say the head of an administration or President holds and your views. In fact when I had my celebrity apprentice moment in Trump Tower meeting with the president and 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. 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 over watched by Border Patrol and has a response force. And but if and only if it’s part of a comprehensive overarching security strategy, which includes a lot of other elements than just walls that 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. 


HOOVER: Sounds like you’re interested. 


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


HOOVER: Your wealth of wisdom has been an enormous service in this country. For which we thank you for your service. 


PETRAEUS: It’s greatest privileges thank you. 


HOOVER: And whether you join the next administration or not. We would love for you to return to firing line.


PETRAEUS:  Well thanks for having me. 


HOOVER: Thank you. 


PETRAEUS: My pleasure. 


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