A Conversation with Former CIA Director David Petraeus

The retired Army general discussed the war in Syria, Donald Trump and his outlook for the United States at GW’s National Churchill Library and Center.

December 18, 2016


Former CIA Director David Petraeus told an audience at GW's National Churchill Library and Center that the new Trump Administration should engage Russia with "eyes wide open." (Logan Werlinger/GW Today)

By B.L. Wilson

Former CIA Director David Petraeus told an audience at George Washington University Friday that the U.S. objective in Syria should be to end the bloodshed as quickly as possible, a goal he thinks is unlikely to be reached soon.

Mr. Petraeus, who led U.S. forces in the Iraq war, said a new administration in the White House should be able to work with Russia on stopping the carnage in Syria and other global hotspots but should do so with “eyes wide open.”

“Ensuring that there is no doubt in the adversary’s or competitor’s mind that there will be a consequence for an action is awfully important,” Mr. Petraeus said about engaging Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Mr. Petraeus’ remarks came at GW’s National Churchill Library and Center (NCLC), where students and members of the International Churchill Society heard Mr. Petraeus discuss his recent meetings with President-elect Donald Trump, the U.S. military success in Iraq and his optimism about the future of the United States.

George Washington President Steven Knapp introduced the retired general, calling Mr. Petraeus one of the most prominent U.S. military leaders of the post-9/11 era.

“His achievements during his 37-year career in the United States Army included, notably, the surge in Iraq,” Dr. Knapp said. “He held six consecutive commands as general officer, five of those in combat, a record apparently unmatched since the Second World War.”

Michael Bishop, M.A. ’94, director of the NCLC, initiated the conversation by asking Mr. Petraeus to talk about his meetings with Mr. Trump, who had been considering Mr. Petraeus for the position of secretary of state.

Mr. Trump and his team “collectively are now…putting policies around what understandably were campaign rhetoric run on short pithy statements,” said Mr. Petraeus, currently a partner with KKR & Co. L.P., an international private equity firm.

Their conversations included topics such as building a wall on the U.S. border with Mexico and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

Mr. Bishop asked Mr. Petraeus to share the lessons he had taken from his experience leading coalition forces in Iraq, especially reversing in 2007 what had been a failing war effort. In that year, thousands of troops were added to the more than 135,000 already in Iraq, Mr. Petraeus said, but the key to turning the war around was a “surge of ideas.”

He said U.S. military leaders developed a counter insurgency plan that emphasized communicating the mission’s goals and strategies from day one from top to bottom.

“We had a very strong conviction,” he said, “that the side that learns and adapts the fastest is probably the side that prevails, and we tried to be that side.”

In looking toward the future of the United States, he said he is a rational optimist based on developments that have occurred in the past two decades in technology, energy, manufacturing and life sciences.

“There’s never a single factor that explains it. The energy revolution is a good example whether you are a fan of fossil fuels or not,” he said. “The fact is that we did something extraordinary by going from 6 million barrels to 9.6 million barrels per day production in the space of about five years.”

A technological revolution made that fast growth possible, he said, and that same technology has given the U.S. military an edge over China and has helped sustain U.S. military involvement in the Middle East.

“This is what is enabling us to fight in a very different way. We are enabling the Iraqi forces, not fighting on the front lines with them or for them,” he said.

His optimism about the future is tempered by shortcomings that he said could be resolved only through policies that include investing in infrastructure and improving productivity with a workforce educated for the future.

The Churchill Center plans to host future conversations with Michael Dobbs, the creator of the Netflix series “House of Cards,” Sir Kim Darroch, the British ambassador to the United States, and Sir John Scarlett, former head of the British Secret Intelligence Service, among others.