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McCain Institute Hosts General (Ret.) David H. Petraeus for Discussion on Gaza, Ukraine, and Evolution of Warfare


Former CIA Director and McCain Institute board member joins McCain Institute Executive Director Dr. Evelyn Farkas for an Authors & Insights discussion on Petraeus’ book, “Conflict: The Evolution of Warfare from 1945 to Ukraine.”

WASHINGTON, D.C. (July 2, 2024) – The McCain Institute at Arizona State University (ASU) hosted an Authors & Insights discussion with General (Ret.) David H. Petraeus about his new book, “Conflict: The Evolution of Warfare from 1945 to Ukraine,” co-authored with prize-winning historian Andrew Roberts.

The discussion centered around General Petraeus’s experience leading U.S. troops in combat, including in Iraq and Afghanistan and insights on the wars in Gaza and Ukraine. The book draws lessons from various conflicts in the modern age, concluding that the key to winning or losing is strategic leadership.

“We picked the conflicts, the wars that most advanced the evolution of warfare,” said General (Ret.) David Petraeus. “The use of this intellectual construct for strategic leadership is very deliberate, and it’s based on our assessment that it is the most important component that determines success or failure in war.”

The question-and-answer session led by McCain Institute Executive Director Dr. Evelyn Farkas touched upon General Petraeus’s personal experience leading military operations, tips for strategic leadership, his professional views on the current Israel-Hamas conflict and the situation in the West Bank, the leadership of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and how to ensure that our enemies are politically and military deterred from attacking the United States or its interests.

Click HERE to watch the event on Youtube.

Excerpts from the conversation:

Strategic leadership requires multiple steps.

“I always had a sign on the walls of my operation center in these five combat commands, a question that was staring me in the face and it asked, ‘Will this operation take more bad guys off the street than it creates by its conduct?’ If the answer to that is no…you’re supposed to retool it so you can get to yes,” said Petraeus.

Decisionmakers should learn from Iraq to end conflict in Gaza.

 “The lesson of the surge in Iraq is that without security nothing is possible, with it, everything is possible,” said Petraeus.

 “The campaign design, the big idea, the strategy [in Gaza] is not adequate. ‘Clear and leave’ is not sufficient…if they [Israel] truly intend to destroy Hamas and prevent them from governing again. If they are shifting to something else, then that would be different. Although I don’t think that would be an adequate result. I think it would be very flawed. Keep in mind that Hamas is akin to the Islamic State. This is an Islamist extremist organization, it is not reconcilable,” Petraeus added.

“In this case what you would have to do is ‘clear, hold, and build’ operations. This is very difficult, it’s very resource intensive, I understand why the Israelis would shrink from this. The problem is I see no alternative…you have to go to war with Hamas if you are going to establish security…How to go about this…put up gated communities…clear them very, very painstakingly…once you’ve done that…you can flood them with humanitarian assistance, you can begin the process of restoration of basic services, reconstruction, you’re showing that you’re actually committed to a better life for the Palestinian people, which should be one of the objectives if you’re trying to keep Hamas from being attractive to the people again,” Petraeus continued.

Perception of leadership can influence political will as evidenced in Ukraine.

“His [Zelenskyy’s] communication skills were incredible…He had differentiated messages, very skillfully delivered for all the countries that were supporting Ukraine, his oversight of the implementation of the big ideas, him out on the front lines and Putin at the end of a long marble table, all of this just compare and contrasts,” said Petraeus.

Hesitation hinders deterrence.

“There should be no doubt about your willingness to use your forces and there should be no question about the capability of those forces for starters. That doesn’t mean that you have to engage directly. In fact, I agree with the administration that we should not be engaging directly with Russia, but we should be doing more to enable Ukraine. I think we actually have responded impressively in general, set good leadership for NATO countries, preventing Putin from driving a wedge…but we also delayed critical decisions far too long…While there in general has been an impressive response led by the U.S. and very impressive by the EU in European countries individually…we’ve again undermined some of this by over hesitation, concerns about escalation that I think were legitimate in the beginning but aren’t any more. That has to do with deterrence…you send a very clear message that ensures that potential adversaries’ assessment of your willingness to use your forces is not wanting,” said Petraeus.

No great power can be isolationist.

“I very much appreciated a couple of comments you made [in the book]…You said no great power can be isolationist. John McCain would be smiling down at you for saying that. Isolationism does make America weaker. You also talked about another thing he [McCain] would have very much agreed with – never underestimate the moral component and the role of morale in war,” concluded Farkas.

About the McCain Institute’s Authors & Insights Series

McCain Institute leaders interview authors of important books on American politics, policy, and leadership with the intention of engaging the American people in a dialogue that affirms the importance of character-driven leadership and America’s role in the international community. Previous authors have included the late former U.S. Secretary of State Madeline Albright, former U.S. Secretary of Defense Dr. Mark Esper, CBS News’ Major Garrett and elections expert David Becker, World Food Programme Executive Director Cindy McCain, CNN’s Jake Tapper, former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, POLITICO’s Alexander Ward, and more.

Publish Date
July 2, 2024