The University awarded U.S. Army Gen. David Petraeus GS ’87 and former U.S. Rep. Jim Leach ’64 two of the highest alumni honors on Alumni Day on Saturday.
Petraeus, who currently serves as commander of the U.S. Central Command, received the James Madison Medal, the top honor awarded annually to a graduate alumnus. Leach, the chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, received the Woodrow Wilson Award, the highest distinction for an undergraduate alumnus.
Both award recipients addressed a crowd of University members and alumni in Richardson Auditorium on Saturday morning before receiving their awards and focused their remarks on leadership.
Petraeus spoke about the idea of “strategic leadership” —the cycle of developing, communicating and implementing ideas — which governed the U.S. involvement in Iraq.
“We had to focus on serving and protecting [the Iraqi people],” he said. “We had to live with the people we were going to secure ... We couldn’t just clear one area and then move on to the next.”
Petraeus explained that, while such ideas were “crucial” in the Iraqi campaign, properly communicating those ideas was just as important.
“To be effective, communication should flow in multiple directions,” he said.
He added that strategic leaders should personally watch over the implementation process but should avoid micromanagement by empowering leaders at lower levels.
“We sought to enable those leaders to turn big ideas at my level into real [ones] at their level,” he explained.
Petraeus said that the University’s strength comes from doing “a superb job of equipping its graduates” with the skills and knowledge necessary for future leaders.
“This room is filled with businessmen and women and public servants,” he noted, “and I know there are many future leaders among us as well.”
Petraeus added that the commitment of University graduates to addressing current issues, fostered during their undergraduate education, is what makes them such strong leaders.
“Remember the fire we all felt as we became citizens of Tiger Nation, a fire that always propels us forward in our commitment to service,” he said.
In response to questions from the audience, Petraeus also addressed some current issues surrounding the U.S. involvement in Iraq, particularly last year’s decision by the military to restrict air-based attacks.
“Before you drop a bomb on a house, if you don’t know who’s in that house ... you do have to think about whether it might be wise to break contact and fight another day or risk that there might be a civilian in that house and hand the enemy a propaganda tool,” he said, referring to the increase in civilian casualties which can result from air attacks. “In the end, we’re going to be able to beat the enemy about the head with the casualties that he had caused.”
Petraeus also addressed the state of affairs in Afghanistan, noting that the United States had focused most of its efforts last year on establishing organizations and infrastructure in Iraq.
“We had these built in Iraq, but we hadn’t quite got there in Afghanistan,” he said.
“We’re eight or nine years into this,” he added, noting that the invasion has inevitably produced losses. “This is either the longest war in our history or soon will be.”
But Petraeus said he remains committed to the campaign’s ultimate goal of preventing the creation of a “sanctuary” for international extremists. “It’s hard,” he said, “but we have important interests there. And we need to do all we can to achieve them.”
In his remarks, Leach focused on the need for civility in the current political environment, noting that civility includes respect for others’ views. To assert that opposition members are advocates of hate, he said, is “out of bounds.”
“In politics, we’re going to have to be vigilant in many different ways, one of which is to guard against certain kinds of wordage,” he said. “Treachery is nothing new in politics, nor is violence.”
Leach explained that current politics are complicated by the fact that many of the “trigger issues” currently under debate, such as abortion and gay marriage, are moral ones. Inevitably, he said, proponents of either side of such issues therefore view their opposition not only as wrong, but as immoral.
Democrats and Republicans, he explained, both face the “polarizing” effects of this system.
Leach noted that Americans should focus on the quality of legislative debate, rather than the outcome.
“There’s no such thing as a good coach or a good team that doesn’t respect the opposition,” he said. “In terms of competitiveness, politics has to catch up with sport.”
Leach also expressed his concern over the recent Supreme Court decision Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which ruled that corporations have the same constitutional right to freedom of speech as individuals have, equating restrictions on corporate political contributions with restrictions on First Amendment rights.
He said he is worried “because the Supreme Court has said that the First Amendment of the Constitution — the right to free speech — applies to an entity that isn’t a living soul, that is artificial.”
Leach noted that citizens will be further angered if their voices are overshadowed by those of financially powerful corporations in the election process.
“What you have [here] is a huge funding aspect that drowns out other people’s speech,” he said.
Petraeus earned a master’s degree in public affairs from the Wilson School in 1985 and a Ph.D. in international relations, also from the Wilson School, in 1987. Leach, who served as a Republican representative from Iowa for 30 years, received a bachelor’s degree in politics from the University in 1964.