Alex Massie

President David Petraeus?

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Until he gives a Shermanesque denial - and perhaps even that won't be enough to silence the speculation - you can bet that there'll be people writing about General David Petraeus's political potential. Can't be avoided. Too much time before the next election; too much space to fill. The most recent effort I've seen comes from Peter Beinart writing at the Daily Beast.

As tends to be the case with such articles, Beinart spends more time entertaining historical comparisons than he does on anything as tedious as practicalities or probabilities. Naturally, this means that he suggests that Petraeus could be just like Dwight Eisenhower. They're both generals, you see? Fine. Apart from that, however, well it turns out that there isn't very much apart from that...

But since this meme will be with us for some time yet, let me suggest a few problems with this otherwise entertaining thesis:

1. It supposes that Petraeus has political aspirations and that he's actually a Republican*. The latter may be the case, there's little evidence to support the former.

2. A 2012 campaign seems exceedingly improbable. For that to happen, Afghanistan would a) have to become a disaster, b) Petraeus would have to resign, blaming Barack Obama for failing in his duty and c) the public would have to back the former

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs

CENTCOM** commander rather than the President.

3. I suspect many senior officers at the Pentagon would be horrified if this were to happen. It would politicise the military and place enormous strains upon the chain of command, not just now but in the future too, driving a wedge between the military and the civilian population. Even Douglas MacArthur realised he couldn't credibly run for the Presidency.

4. As a general rule, outsiders don't fare too well in the political arena. Eisenhower is an exception, not the rule. And in any case, we're a long way from 1952 and America is a very different, probaby more complicated, place. Plus, for all his achievements Petraeus himself might blush at comparisons with Ike.

5. Related to 4, politics is difficult. Some Democrats thought General Wesley Clark was the answer to their perceived "national security credibility gap" in 2004. He had a pretty good resume after all: Bosnia, NATO chief etc etc. But Clark proved hopeless on the campaign trail and was rarely convincing.

6. National Security isn't enough. Other issues matter too and Presidential elections are rarely single-issue campaigns. 2012 and, even more probably, 2016 are not likely to be a re-run of 2004. At least one hopes not. What does Petraeus have to say on jobs or immigration?

7. 2012 is, I think, a non-runner largely because it would require the general to run against the administration he served. He'd also need to start preparing next year. Last-minute, cobbled-together campaigns rarely fare well. So 2016 it would have to be. and that's so far in the future that, entertaining as such speculation is, it scarcely seems worth thinking about at this stage.

8. Even then, mind you, comparison with Ike seem strained if for no other reason that when Eisenhower ran the Democrats had held the White House for 20 years. A change seemed a reasonable notion. 2016, even if Obama wins a second term, will not be quite the same.

None of this means it can't happen, nor that it isn't an entertaining parlour game. But that's all it is and it's unlikely to happen too. At least, that's how it looks right now.

*UPDATE: Ah. Jason Zengerle points out that the General is, or has been, a registered Republican. Of the Rockefeller variety. That is to say, of the type that is virtually extinct in the modern GOP. Medals and ribbons need to do a lot of heavy lifting to overcome that disadvantage.

**Doh. Corrected. Thanks to Anthony in the comments section.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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