Heather Hurlburt is the executive director of the National Security Network in Washington, D.C. Heather previously served in the Clinton administration as speechwriter to the president, and as speechwriter and policy planning staff for Secretaries of State Madeleine Albright and Warren Christopher. Follow her on Twitter at @NatSecHeather.
Washington’s politics, and what passes for the city’s intellectual life, are not immune from the law of gravity. What rises fast to the stratosphere comes back to earth, whether Hillary Clinton or Kenneth Starr, Madeleine Albright or Donald Rumsfeld, the Contract with America, or Obamneycare. Blink, and the Next Big Thing is that book left in the rain at the end of your neighbor’s garage sale. (Though then there are those who bounce through gravity, Clinton and Gingrich in particular—but that’s another column, to be titled “Why F. Scott Fitzgerald was wrong.”)
The travails of David Petraeus are revealing about not just one, but two, Next Big Things. Stop snickering: I am referring, of course, to counterinsurgency theory and drone warfare.
David Petraeus burst into public consciousness as the general who had, supposedly literally, written the book on counterinsurgency—warfare centered on winning the hearts and minds of civilians, known to the cognoscenti as COIN—and who was single-handedly dispatched to turn things around in first Iraq and then Afghanistan. Conservatives loved him because he talked confidently about prevailing. Internationalists and humanitarians liked the idea of focus on governance and meeting human needs as keys to ending fighting. The Beltway intellectual elite loved him because he seemed to be a thinker: West Point, Princeton, learning the lessons of the past. The media loved him because he gave good TV. And good quotes. And good background. And manhood tests for civilians disguised as five-mile runs.
(It should be noted here that much of the left, some libertarian conservatives, and some of his fellow officers didn’t much care for him—because there seemed to be so few limits to his strategic or personal ambitions.)
But as Spencer Ackerman and others have noted, it turned out that one of Petraeus’s supreme intellectual gifts was adaptability; when his counterinsurgency tactics that had helped bring together an Iraqi coalition to tamp down violence and allow a U.S. exit from Iraq proved ill-adapted to Afghan conditions, and unsustainable at home, Petraeus was able to leave them behind. Counterinsurgency theory has been the Last Big Thing for several years now, but Petraeus, both in his time in Afghanistan and at the CIA became one of the major implementers if not architects of its successor—coping with the threat of terrorism not by winning hearts and minds, but by decapitating extremist groups so quickly that they were ill-equipped to mount and carry out large-scale attacks across borders and great distances. The drone wars.