There really is no particularly informative historical precedent for Gen. David Petraeus' upcoming public assessment of Iraq.
Perhaps we are entering new historical terrain, where the commanding general's pivotal strategic gambit is a media event.
And media event it is. With its certain long-term global import and short-term political impact, Petraeus' report meets a hustling television exec's primal requirement: drama.
When the spotlight strikes his face and he begins to speak, we will witness drama in large letters.
No one, however, should confuse the general's appearance with entertainment.
The quick commentators will dub his report a historical pivot. That will be true, but only in a narrow sense. Despite the sensationalist headlines and hyperbolic fretting, given the decades of terror and the centuries of political fossilization afflicting the Middle East, the trend lines in The War on Terror are astonishingly good.
Trends are the great truths behind pivotal moments, and Petraeus is aware of that. Since 9-11, America has made great strides in addressing at the fundamental level the social pathologies that seed Islamo-fascist terrorism. In short form it is this: The choice between tyrant and terrorist is no choice. Modernity requires a degree of social consensus and economic liberalization. Iraq is thus a radical experiment in modernity in a vital region afflicted by economic failure, tribal factiousness and oil-dollar powered feudalism.
Petraeus is aware of those positive trends, as well as the inevitable catastrophes that ultimately produce victory.
Petraeus' pivotal moment is the rare opportunity to correct what media analysts call "the dominant narrative."
That dominant narrative has been defeat. Defeat has been a useful narrative to that large percentage in the political class who are mere politicians, not statesmen.
Instantaneous and pervasive media have reshaped the political environment. Bill Clinton's "perpetual presidential campaign," waged from a White House war room, recognized this condition.
I recall visiting with an intelligence officer in the Pentagon during the Persian Gulf War in February 1991. He pointed to a television monitor tuned to CNN and quipped, "That's current intelligence." It was narrowly framed, poorly contextualized, emotionally charged and anecdotal intelligence, but his wisecrack was dead-on -- a live camera relaying pictures from the battlefield backed by breathless commentary is current intelligence. The Gulf War and Clinton's endless campaign preceded the Internet's expansion and video cell phones. Instant today is faster than 10 years ago.
Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
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