STEVE INSKEEP, host:
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
And I'm Renee Montagne.
This week, a new American commander arrives in Iraq. General David Petraeus just earned a fourth star, a rank that few soldiers ever reach.
INSKEEP: His friend John Galvin says that when Petraeus meets a soldier in line for inspection, he may ask a question like this:
General JOHN GALVIN (U.S. Army, Retired): How many push-ups can you do? Sir, I can do 30, 40, 50. And he'll say, I bet you I can do one better than you do. And then he'll get a smile from the soldier and say, you really think so, sir?
INSKEEP: Which is how the general may end up in a push-up contest with a corporal. That's just one of the many ways that David Petraeus wins over people, and one way he likes to compete.
Gen. GALVIN: I actually have never seen him lose.
INSKEEP: Now, General Petraeus returns to a brutal competition of a different kind, which he described in the Senate last month.
General DAVID PETRAEUS (U.S. Army): We face a determined, adaptable, barbaric enemy. He will try to wait us out. In fact, any such endeavor is a test of wills, and there are no guarantees.
INSKEEP: Today and tomorrow, NPR's MORNING EDITION profiles two men trying to win that test of wills. One is Ryan Crocker, the nominee to be U.S. ambassador to Iraq. The other is General David Petraeus. He's 54 years old, a native of New York. That's where he was attending West Point during the last long war.
Gen. PETRAEUS: We watched Vietnam end as we were sitting in classrooms.
INSKEEP: And his classmate at the Military Academy, Conrad Crane, says Petraeus later wrote a dissertation on the lessons of that war.
He wasn't as big as some soldiers - a wiry man of average height. But an officer who later supervised him, Daniel Kaufman, says the Army looked for soldiers like Petraeus.
How's that work in the Army? Does somebody look around and say here's this second lieutenant who's just graduated from West Point, but he's somebody, and we want to groom him? We know we've got something special here.
General DANIEL KAUFMAN (U.S. Army, Retired): We try to, really, by the time they are commanding companies as young officers, as captains. That's really the first sort of cut, as it were. Do they really get it? Do they know how to do it? But more to the point, what kind of mental acuity do they bring to the job? Are they just people who do what you tell them? Or are they people who know how to ask the right kinds of questions and who make things better?
INSKEEP: And if you become one of those guys who's marked for future success, is it almost like you've got a red tag on you, or an extra medal on your chest?
Gen. KAUFMAN: Well, you do. I mean, the Army will do a fully-funded graduate school, like we did with Dave in sending him to Princeton. And so you get a first-rate graduate education. And so intellectually, you're a different duck.
INSKEEP: The kind that commanders wanted on their staffs.
General JOHN GALVIN (U.S. Army, Retired): I was astounded with him. He is so bright and so perceptive.
INSKEEP: General John Galvin commanded Petraeus at Fort Stewart, Georgia. Later, Galvin commanded U.S. forces in Europe, and he instructed his young aide to critique him.
Gen. GALVIN: In fact, I'll tell you a little anecdote.
Gen. GALVIN: He got so good at it, I said to him one day, okay. Now we're going to take another step here. I want you to give me a report card every month on all the issues that we're working on. He said, sir, I don't want to give grades to you. I want you to give grades to me. And I said, no. It's got to go both ways.
INSKEEP: General Galvin is retired now, but his former aide keeps in touch. That's true of many people in this report. Petraeus is a constant e-mailer with people like Daniel Kaufman, his former colleague at West Point.
Gen. KAUFMAN: It's disconcerting, because you send him an e-mail and you figure this guy is busy, and he'll - in 15 minutes, you get an answer back. And so I always write him, I say Dave, why are you answering e-mails from obscure college presidents when you should be running the world?
INSKEEP: Often enough, he's e-mailing influential people, the kind he seems to meet even when he isn't trying. In 1991, Petraeus suffered an injury that his trauma surgeon described this way:
Former Senator BILL FRIST (Republican, Tennessee): A soldier had fallen in a training exercise, and his M-16 had live ammunition. It went off, and from about 40 meters, Dave Petraeus had been shot in the chest.
INSKEEP: If you recognize that voice, it's because the surgeon who cut open the soldier's chest and saved his life was Bill Frist, a future senator and Senate majority leader. They stayed in touch, became friends and talked often as the war began in Iraq.
Former Senator FRIST: When he comes into your office, and in a period of five to 10 minutes reflects that understanding of where we are at this point in history and outlines a very clear strategic plan of how he will train the Iraqi soldiers, it's quite appealing.
INSKEEP: Petraeus took charge of training Iraqi troops. Before that, he commanded U.S. troops in Mosul. The American occupation had hardly begun in 2003, when he gathered hundreds of Iraqis to choose their own local government.
Gen. PETRAEUS: By being here today, you are participating in the birth of the democratic process in Iraq. This is an historic occasion, and an important step forward for Mosul and for Iraq.
INSKEEP: General Petraeus set out to build relationships with Iraqis, just as he had with superiors and subordinates. He was praised for restoring Mosul's government and jump-starting the economy. That made his reputation outside the Army, though he told NPR at the time that he understood the risk.
Gen. PETRAEUS: Every city that we liberated, we were applauded and given thumbs-up everywhere we went. It's temporary if we don't get it right.
INSKEEP: Some wondered if Petraeus got it entirely right. Mosul's violence increased after he left.
Mr. MICHAEL RUBIN (Former Staff Member, Coalition Provisional Authority): The good thing about General Petraeus is he's very decisive and he gets things done. The bad thing about General Petraeus is he's very decisive and he gets things done.
INSKEEP: Michael Rubin is a former staff member for the U.S. occupation.
Mr. RUBIN: He returned into Mosul city council and Mosul city services a lot of former Baathists and a lot of Islamists. And in the short-term, Mosul became very, very quiet. The question is whether Mosul became a base for the insurgency. One example would be Mohammed Kheiri Barhawi, who was a brigadier general under the Baathist regime. And he was made the chief of police. Well, right after General Petraeus left, it turned out that this general was working for the insurgents the whole time.
INSKEEP: Rubin criticized the general in print and soon discovered how Petraeus built relationships with critics. The general's supporters contacted Rubin. They said reconciliation was the best available course in Mosul. They said the police chief was helpful at first and was never proven to have gone over to the enemy, though Rubin stayed skeptical.
Petraeus faced more critics when he worked on a counter insurgency guide with his old classmate, Conrad Crane.
Dr. CONRAD CRANE (Petraeus' Former Military Academy Classmate): Any kind of criticism of the manual in the newspaper immediately got engaged.
INSKEEP: Take the time that a retired military strategist wrote that an early draft of the guide had fatally wrong prescriptions for fairytale conflicts.
Lt. Colonel RALPH PETERS (U.S. Army, Retired): I thought that this is going to kill American troops for nothing. Since I joined the Army, I had never been as angry about anything the Army produced.
INSKEEP: That angry man was Ralph Peters, who, like so many soldiers, kept up an e-mail correspondence with General Petraeus.
Lt. Col. PETERS: After the article was published, the line went dead for a couple of weeks. But then Dave Petraeus came back and said, you know, we need to talk about this. And he asked me to come out to Fort Leavenworth and sit down with his doctrine writers and argue it out.
INSKEEP: Did the manual change?
Lt. Col. PETERS: Significantly. And I was just a minor catalyst in that change. The real driving force, I think, was the Marine Corps, which won more balance to the manual. The final document is still a deeply flawed manual, but it's much better.
INSKEEP: And this critic now speaks of Petraeus as the military's best hope in Iraq.
Another retired officer, Barry McCaffrey, calls Petraeus the best person to play a losing hand.
General BARRY MCCAFFREY (U.S. Army, Retired): I would argue he's not going back to a country to fight a counterinsurgency campaign. He's going back to try and mitigate, moderate, end a civil war. And those are two entirely different challenges. You know, he's not there to root out Baathist dead-enders from among a population yearning for democracy. He's got Shia and Sunni involved in a death struggle for political power and survival.
INSKEEP: So the first job for General Petraeus will be to measure the Iraqis he's working with. He explained his job this way before the Senate.
Gen. PETRAEUS: I need to get back to a country that I haven't been in in 16 months and determine what the will is. If I detect that they don't want it as much as we want it, I will report that to my boss.
INSKEEP: General David Petraeus has spent a career acting swiftly and building relationships. In Iraq, he has limited time to build relationships that work.
(Soundbite of music)
MONTAGNE: You can learn more about one general's view of David Petraeus at npr.org. And tomorrow, we'll report on the nominee for U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker. If confirmed, he'll be the diplomatic counterpart to General Petraeus.
Unidentified Man: He and Crocker, you know, if they come up with an accurate appraisal of the situation, if they ask for the right resources, if they're good with the Iraqis, everyone will hopefully try and claim credit for their successes. If it goes wrong, they're on their own.
(Soundbite of music)
MONTAGNE: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.