• As Petraeus himself argues, it is crucial that any leader “get the big idea right” — and in Iraq in particular, he surely did, after his predecessors had not. His focus on the need to get troops out of big bases and into the cities and towns of Iraq, where they could patrol the streets, gain the confidence of the population, collect accurate intelligence, protect the citizenry and work with local community leaders as well as security personnel was clearly vindicated. He did have kindred spirits within the military who also supported this concept, to be sure. But they were not that numerous. Neither the joint chiefs of staff as a group nor even Secretary of Defense Robert Gates were initially inclined to support, resource and sustain the radical change in strategy.
Yes, the surge in U.S. troop levels was crucial, too, for turning around the war there. Yes, the “Sunni awakening” movement was essential, as well. I never heard Petraeus claim that it was only, or even mainly, his own contributions to the new strategy that brought down violence by 90 percent in the short space of 18 months. But without this absolutely bold and correct big idea, there was little chance that any of these other favorable inputs or circumstances could turn the war around. The surge was the most dramatic, if not necessarily the most important, turnaround in American military history since perhaps the Revolutionary War, and he had a great deal to do with it.