Professor Cunningham interviewed former CIA Director and General (Ret.) David H. Petraeus, Chairman of KKR Global Institute, at KKR headquarters in New York City where they discussed the global challenges facing the boardroom and the battlefield.
(Full length YouTube video appears at the end of the post)
Q. In your new role at KKR Global, you advise business leaders on global issues. What keeps them up at night?
A. There’s a convergence of issues that business leaders now have to consider. There is always the micro, financials and growth thesis, but now they must be equally concerned about the macro, governance and geopolitical risks.
If Jeff Immelt of GE asked you how to go about doing business in Iran, what would you say?
The first thing I would say is anyone looking to invest in Iran ought to get a very trustworthy, experienced Iranian partner; and second, a very good international lawyer. The legal restrictions on Iran are still quite considerable because of their continuing support for Lebanese Hezbollah and the Revolutionary Guards Corps Quds Force, both of which are designated terrorist organizations.
In Afghanistan and Iraq, political leaders were saying one thing while doing another. Any advice on how to deal with situations like that?
“You don’t get to choose your partners in real life or in those circumstances.”
Very carefully. With a considerable degree of, at times, patience, occasionally showing the full range of emotions, ideally while acting rather than actually truly losing it.
How were you able to motivate troops in such a desperate situation?
“I truly believed in what it was we were going to do and I think the troops did, too.”
This was not a win-or-lose, take the hill, plant the flag, and go home to a victory parade matter. The troops knew that as well. The goal is to gradually accumulate progress so that you can gradually transition and gradually go home.
What people might remember is it was the surge of ideas not just the surge of forces that allowed us to achieve such meaningful results. The 25,000 troops that we added would not alone have predicted such demonstrable change. The big ideas that were implemented were crucial.
How were you able to shift the political dynamic from tribalism to democracy?
“We had a test question: Will this policy or operation take more bad guys off the street than it creates by its conduct? If the answer to that is no, you don’t do it.”
The overarching lesson is that it had to be their form of democracy. Actually, in the very beginning, when I was there as a two-star general commanding the 101st Airborne Division, we were deployed up to the north to the very, very difficult city of Mosul in Nineveh Province, and there was terrible looting, terrible violence.
We blanketed it as quickly as we could and then we very quickly got an Iraqi government, an interim government, and our goal was to be representative of all the major elements in Nineveh Province — all the districts, all the tribes, all the ethnic groups, the sectarian groupings — and then to be as responsive as possible to the people. And it worked as long as we were representative and responsive.
Your strategy succeeded, then US politicians implemented de-Ba’athification which led to chaos. How do you deal with that?
“In a rational and hopefully convincing manner, explain when issues should not be considered — Go sit under a tree until the thought passes — kind of ideas.”
Unfortunately, there was no consultation. De-Ba’athification cast tens of thousands of Iraqis, the most respected members of their societies, on the ash heap of history. Ambassador Bremer himself, the Coalition Provisional Authority head, a year later, acknowledged that his biggest failure was not having an agreed upon reconciliation process.
How did you express your opinion to the Commander in Chief in the Oval Office?
When I was first appointed by President Obama — everybody else was going out of the Oval Office as I was coming in and avoiding eye contact — he began by saying: “I am asking you as your President and Commander-in-Chief to go to Afghanistan and take command of the International Security Assistance Force.”
“When someone starts a request like that, it’s not something to which you can say no.”
But I wanted him to know who he was getting, so I said, “Mr. President, you should understand that I will provide my best professional military advice based on the facts on the ground and the mission you’ve given us as we have discussed it and informed by the issues with which you have to deal uniquely. Congressional politics, national politics, coalition politics, strain in the force, budgets, deficits. These are your province. I’ll be aware of those, but my advice will be determined by facts on the ground.”
A year later, at the end of several meetings, he asked if I agreed with his decision, which was less than what I’d recommended. So I said, “with great respect, as you’ll recall our discussion, my recommendation was driven by facts on the ground as well as awareness of what you’re dealing with, but the facts on the ground haven’t changed, and so my recommendation is also unchanged.”
“That was a very interesting, tense moment.”
If you were in the business world, you’d receive a huge bonus and a bigger office.
I wasn’t doing this for the stock options.
What does it mean — to a civilian, to be made a four-star general?
Candidly, you’re not just the face of the war. You are the one individual, perhaps more than anyone else, together with your country’s ambassador, who is going to be listened to the most intently by the Commander-in-Chief in Washington.
How much physical danger did you face?
I never thought that much about the danger to me. In fact, I never even wore a Kevlar helmet in Afghanistan.
That’s not to say there couldn’t be a random rocket that has your name on it or a sniper out there. But this is not closing with and destroying the enemy, as our troops on the ground were doing, and as our son, who was at the time a second lieutenant and the platoon leader of an airborne infantry platoon in the 173rd Airborne Brigade, was doing.
The dangers with which I had to contend, frankly, were far more in the political realm. They were the most devilishly difficult and the most emotional and most challenging, even after you’ve got the security situation right, because at the heart of it, the struggle in Iraq is about resources and power.
I understand that to empathize with the risks facing our combat troops, you managed to get yourself shot?
We had a very aggressive live fire program and I was actually walking behind a particular rifle squad, and a soldier who had knocked a bunker out with a grenade, spun out of it, tripped on the top step. His rifle came down, and we think he tensed — because he actually was knocked out momentarily — squeezed off a round, and it went right through my chest.
In the hospital with the gunshot wound, they had to put a tube into your chest without anesthetics?
They realized, “It probably hasn’t severed an artery or he’d be dead by now. But there’s fluid, very clearly, and so they have to get suction in there.” It’s one time where someone said, “This is really going to hurt.” He didn’t have time to do anesthetic. He took a scalpel and cut an X in my side right here, crunched right to the bone, then peeled it back, and drove a hard plastic tube right into my lung.
The comeback was reasonably quick. I was very thankful for that, frankly. I was not the most patient of patients. I was doing laps around the hospital.
There’s a story about you doing 50 pushups to prove you were ready.
I said, “What do I need to show you?” Either I still had some tubes in or pulled ’em out and just got down and knocked out 50 pushups, and jokingly I said it’s the only time I ever stopped at 50.
With a name like David, the Goliath slayer, inevitably you were going to do something in the Middle East.
I don’t know if it was inevitable or not. In fact, a lot of people have said at various points, people get lucky or lucky with timing. If you’d been the guy that commanded the 101st prior to you, you would’ve gone off to the Pentagon. Again, I come in and take over, and off we go. Folks said, “Oh, he got lucky with the surge, got lucky because the Sunnis were ready to reconcile.”
“I’ve always thought that luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.”
Can you connect that period to the spread of ISIS.
The al-Qaeda in Iraq elements and the Sunni insurgents that we were battling on the Sunni side became the core of ISIS of the future. We destroyed these elements. They were truly rendered incapable of accomplishing their mission without reconstitution, which is the definition for destruction.
Later, when Prime Minister Maliki went after the Sunni Arabs leaders, and then violently put down the demonstrations, it flipped that community, and that ultimately became the Islamic State.
Of course, that drifted over into Syria, where you have a full-on sectarian civil war. They grow a great amount of additional strength, start getting the international volunteers, equipment, money, really revenue-generating organization, and experience, and then sweep back into Iraq. Only this time, it’s not a terrorist organization. This is a real army, but, frankly, we do pretty well against real armies.
You said ungoverned spaces in the Middle East will be occupied.
Ungoverned spaces in the Islamic world, especially, it seems, this part which is from West Africa, North Africa, Middle East, including the Sinai, but the way, of course, where we’re seeing real problems, and then into Central Asia and perhaps some other areas will be exploited by Islamic extremists, and the effects of them exploiting these areas will not be contained in those areas. I think that’s a huge revelation, if you will.
“It means you can’t admire the problem until it goes away, as people sometimes waggishly say in Washington.”
Each time you were in the Oval Office, you were dealing with a president that had reelection on his mind.
Of course, President Bush was not running for reelection, but again, that didn’t matter. They still have political issues. There are budget deficits. There are all these issues that are frankly beyond the purview of the individual in Iraq or Afghanistan.
“My view was that you just can’t provide something that’s completely irrelevant because it’s so unrealistic — but that the recommendation and the options developed would be driven by the facts on the ground, not by what’s going on in Washington.”
Can you tell us a little bit about the role models that helped you along your leadership journey?
I was privileged to work for General Jack Galvin, a soldier scholar, statesman and the one who asked me if I didn’t want to raise my sights more than the maximum effective range of an M-60 machine gun, i.e., go to graduate school instead of to another ranger assignment. That made a huge difference.
What was the impact of your Ph.D. on your own leadership thinking?
Graduate school for me was the ultimate out of my intellectual comfort zone experience and an experience in which I drew for the rest of my life.
“It was just the sheer knowledge that there are very seriously bright people out there who don’t see the world the same way you do, in fact, some who see it very, very differently.”
General Galvin said to you, “There’s no book that explains leadership in battle”.
When I had some time on my hands after leaving government before figuring out what I was going to do next, I did, in fact, outline a book and the title was Relentless: Leadership Lessons Learned — Some the Hard Way.
“It lays out my thoughts on strategic leadership, in particular of getting the big ideas right, communicating them effectively to the breadth and depth of the organization, overseeing their implementation, and then, often most importantly, determining how they need to be refined, revised, shot and left by the side of the road, so you do it all over again and again and again.”
In the early stage, you asked what has become a famous question, “Tell me how this ends.” How did that come about?
I’d actually asked before on the eve of going into Iraq, “Could you tell me again what happens after we get to Baghdad and take down the regime?”
A retired general stood up from the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, and said, “You just get us to Baghdad, Dave. We’ll take it from there.”
I realized fairly early on with our experience in Najaf, the first major city, I think, in Iraq that was liberated, that this is non-trivial. By the way, that’s in a Shia Arab-predominant area. Imagine what it’s going to be like when we get to Shia, Sunni, Kurds, Christians, Shabaks, Yazidis, and Turkmen, and all the others. That’s where I asked Pulitzer Prize winner, Rick Atkinson, who was sitting in the back of my humvee, “Tell me how this ends.”
What are the characteristics that made you such a successful, even conquering warrior?
I’d like to think that I at least at that point in time and the final 19–1/2 months at least, where I was privileged to command the surge, that at least I had a sense of what Iraq was, an understanding of the human terrain.
Then, we’d spent a lot of time trying to get the big ideas right. It also took a great, great team, and everybody embracing the idea. Troops wrote me, because you’re accessible to anyone on e-mail, and say, “Thanks for letting us do what they taught us in the counterinsurgency center.”
“Then there was a degree of determination. There’s a little bit of the stubborn Dutchman in me, taking after my old Dutch sea captain father.”
The enemy’s impressive?
It varies, but certainly there are some very, very talented, diabolically, barbarically, extremist enemies that we have who are very, very tough. We should and we do recognize it.
“I can tell you anybody that’s fought them may hate them, may have disdain for them, may have a variety of other feelings, but respects their capabilities. It’s tough, though.”
Did the stress ever get to you?
In Iraq there was a point — you deal with this day in, day out, and you have no peers. You’re the only four-star there, and every now and then some friend or General Keane or the chairman or the SecDef will stop by, and you can unburden yourself a tiny bit, but even then you’re holding back. After a real tough, tough stretch it was starting to turn, but you’ve got political battles, the prime minister, the members of the Parliament, all kinds of issues.
I remember I called up the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and said, “Hey, Admiral. I just want you to know this is not the easiest thing in the world.”
Because, as you may recall, my own chain of command did not have enormous, unbounded confidence that we were going to be able to do what we ultimately did.
The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs said, “Yeah, I got it, Dave, and we won’t leave you there forever.” I just felt that somebody needs to know.
“That’s the challenge, as they say, that’s the loneliness of command.”
Jeff Cunningham is Professor of Global Leadership at Thunderbird School of Global Management and the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication of Arizona State University.
He is also host and creator of the YouTube Channel IV, www.IconicVoices.TV produced in affiliation with Thunderbird, which features interviews with global leaders like Warren Buffett, GE’s Jeffrey Immelt, General David Petraeus, former Exxon board member, Dr. Reatha Clark King.
He has advised Fortune 500 and digital technology companies on producing outstanding leadership in global boardrooms including Data General, Countrywide Financial, Schindler (Switzerland), Bankrate, TheStreet.com, Genuity, EXLservice (India), and Sapient.
His business background prior to joining the faculty of Thunderbird was publisher of Forbes Magazine; founder of Directorship Magazine; venture partner Highland Capital; general partner Schroder Ventures; president venture accelerator CMGI; CEO Myway.com and Zip2.com (Elon Musk’s first company); CEO Michael Milken’s CareerTrack; vice president BusinessWeek.
Lord William Rees-Mogg, editor of The Times of London, described him as “one of the most influential people in media.”
He has served on 10 public company boards, four as chairman.
He can be reached at email@example.com