The night before General David Petraeus turned over command in Baghdad, a group of senior officers gathered at Camp Victory to say goodbye. It was like a football team's testimonial dinner at the end of a winning season: There were steaks and baked potatoes and a highlight film of the general's 20-month command, scored with rock music, called "Surge of Hope."
The signature line of the video was a statement Petraeus made to Congress when he began what seemed to many people like mission impossible: "Hard is not hopeless." That was his closing comment, too, as he relinquished command in an elaborate ceremony Tuesday at the gilded Al-Faw Palace. But now, he said, Iraq was "still hard but hopeful."
Petraeus did something astonishing in Iraq. It wasn't simply managing the "surge" of U.S. troops, whose precise effects military historians will be debating for years. It was that he restored confidence in and a sense of purpose to a military that had begun to think, deep down, that the Iraq war was unwinnable and unsustainable.
By force of will, Petraeus and his president, George W. Bush, turned that around. They didn't win in Iraq, but they created the possibility of an honorable exit.
Petraeus still doesn't have an answer to the haunting question he asked in March 2003 as the war was beginning: "Tell me how this ends." The ending almost certainly will be ragged; Iraq's political institutions are still fragile and in some cases nonexistent; the country could still be sundered by a Sunni-Shiite civil war. But Iraq now has at least a chance to make it.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates put it eloquently Tuesday when he said of Petraeus, paraphrasing General Douglas MacArthur: "You have built courage when courage seemed to fail; regained faith when there seemed to be little cause for faith; and created hope when hope had become forlorn."
Petraeus was the most political of generals, though not in the MacArthur man-on-horseback sense. He understood that part of his job was to communicate with the public - through the press, through Congress, through his picture-perfect military demeanor. This zest for the public eye sometimes nearly derailed Petraeus; he was so assiduous in cultivating the media that reporters wondered how early he must rise to answer all his journalistic e-mail; his own aides muttered about how frequently the boss changed uniforms so that he would always look sharp.
But this media-savvy commander was precisely what the Iraq war needed in the age of 24/7 coverage. With Bush largely discredited, Petraeus became the public face of the war. He was a political officer to an extent we rarely see in the American military, and through his quiet demeanor, he made it work.
Though Petraeus will go down as the "surge" commander, there's a lively debate within the military about just what accomplished the turnaround. Was it numbers - the five additional combat brigades? Was it the new counterinsurgency tactics Petraeus instilled among his troops? Or was it the brutally efficient new intelligence tools used by U.S. Special Operations forces to hunt and kill al-Qaeda in Iraq?
The answer, surely, is that it was a combination of all of the above. But the virtuous cycle that developed in Iraq would have been impossible without the signal of American resolve that Bush sent in backing Petraeus and his strategy. Iraq was hurtling toward civil war in 2006 in part because Iraqis thought we were about to bail out; Petraeus and the surge changed that psychology.
Will it last? That's hard to answer, even for Petraeus. All the forces that were tearing the Iraqi nation apart are still there; Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds are not yet reconciled to the idea of sharing power in a democratic state.
What's clear, though, even in a brief visit to Baghdad, are signs the Iraqi nation is regaining its sense of sovereignty: You see it in the new swagger of Iraqi generals such as Lieutenant General Aboud Qanbar, the commander of the Iraqi capital, a beefy man in a red beret and gaudy camouflage uniform; in the in-your-face bargaining by Iraqi politicians over the status-of-forces agreement with the United States; in the political dance of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who goes from a meeting with Gates to an iftar dinner with followers of former insurgent Muqtada al-Sadr.
Iraq is still a bruised country. It will bleed for years. But the very fact that it is still a country at all is a tribute to a remarkable American general and his insistence that "hard is not hopeless."
*Published in the Lebanese The Daily Star on September 18, 2008.