Petraeus: ‘Damage Done By Abu Ghraib Is Permanent’

Mark Bowden’s Vanity Fair profile of General David Petraeus is every bit as worshipful as one would expect from the author of a classic love poem to the F-22, but that’s not to say it’s not worth reading. Among other things, Bowden elicits a very succinct description from Petraeus of the role of American values in counter-insurgency:

One of our doctrines is: Live your values,” Petraeus says. “And there are two arguments for living your values. One is you have the moral obligation to do it. It is the right thing to do. If you don’t buy that, you have a practical reason to do it, because every time you violate it, you pay for it.” The damage done by Abu Ghraib, for instance, is permanent; he has called it a “nonbiodegradable” event. It undercuts the core objective, the trust and respect of the indigenous population. Petraeus says, “The human terrain is the decisive terrain.”

Petraeus used very similar language when voicing support for closing Guantanamo Bay, abandoning torture, and trying terrorists like Khalid Sheikh Muhammad in U.S. courts:

I don’t think we should be afraid to live our values. That is what we’re fighting for and it’s what we stand for. So indeed, we need to embrace them and we need to operationalize them in how we carry out what it is we’re doing on the battlefield and everywhere else. So one has to have some faith I think, in the legal system. One has to have a degree of confidence that individuals that have conducted such extremist activity would indeed be found guilty in courts of law.[…]

Gitmo has caused us problems, there’s no question about it. I oversee a region in which the existence of Gitmo has indeed been used by the enemy against us. We have not been without missteps or mistakes in our activities since 9/11. And again, Gitmo is a lingering reminder for the use of some in that regard.

Like Abu Ghraib, the use of indefinite detention and torture, and the use of military commissions that lack international legal credibility, undercut core U.S. national security objectives, one of which is the trust and respect of populations whose cooperation is essential to weaken and defeat Al Qaeda and other extremists. It’s amazing that so many who hailed Petraeus as a hero of the Iraq surge now either fail to grasp or simply dismiss these views because they challenge their conception of what a “war on terror” should look like.


Bowden also writes that Petraeus “has brought an expansive vision to his new job, just as he has done in the past, pushing the Obama administration to rethink its approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the broader context of the region. [Petraeus ] relies on the cooperation of Arab nations, and so must cope with their unhappiness over America’s inability to make progress in peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.” While this might be unfair to Obama, who I think clearly already had an understanding of the significance of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the region, it does further strengthen the “linkage” argument that neoconservative pundits have been so anxious to downplay in the wake of Petraeus’s recent Senate testimony.