David Petraeus GS '85 GS '87, decorated war general and former head of the CIA, has led a prominent career in public service and government. A graduate of the Woodrow Wilson School at the University with a Ph.D. in international relations, Petraeus took time from his busy schedule to chat with The Daily Princetonian during his 30th Reunion.
Daily Princetonian: Are there any memories from Princeton that stick out to you?
David Petraeus: I think what was particularly useful for me were various forums like the arms control lunch or other groups that brought students and faculty together and, frankly, taught me that there are a lot of seriously bright people in the world who come at important issues from very different points of departure. That experience was very, very salutary. It was a great dose, on many occasions, of intellectual humility. It was also a source of very stimulating debates. Much later in my military career, when I was serving in foreign countries with citizens that come at the world from very different points of view than those that we might hold, it proved very useful. I went from the command and general staff college, where we thought we had serious debates on issues, but the truth was that they were in a very narrow spectrum. I came to understand the much wider spectrum of views on various issues while I was at the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton. In fact, when people asked me, in the first year in Iraq, in northern Iraq when I was a division commander in Mosul, when they asked me, "What prepared you for this situation, for these people who see the world through a very different lens than you do, than we do?" my response was: The best preparation I had was graduate school at Princeton University.
DP: What was the biggest challenge you faced while at Princeton?
DP GS '85 GS '87: There were two big challenges. [The] first [challenge was] the advanced economic courses that I had to take to qualify for the Ph.D. I had not taken any true economics course at West Point, so it was very interesting to be going through a basic econ text to understand the fundamentals at the same time that I was enrolled in advanced, graduate level economics courses. The second big challenge was the overload of courses that I had to take to not just complete the [master's in public affairs] but to complete all of the coursework, general exams, oral exams, language exams and dissertation prospectus in that same two year period. The military only allowed me to have two years at grad school, and I wanted to leave having not only gotten the MBA but having completed all the requirements of the Ph.D. including approval of the dissertation prospectus before leaving campus. I was able to do it, but it took a lot of focus, an enormous amount of hard work, and, frankly, professors that were willing to accommodate my circumstance by offering directed reading courses. I created a whole bunch of courses for myself basically, to get ready for the general exams. Professor [Richard] Ullman was extraordinary. The amount of time that he gave to me was just, again, truly extraordinary. My other dissertation advisors, Professors [Stephen] Walt and [Barry] Posen, were equally generous with their time.
DP: If you had to pick a favorite class that you took while at Princeton, what would it be?
DP GS '85 GS '87: I think it might have been, of all things, the class on international law taught by Professor Dick Falk, who, candidly, is one of those who sees the world through a different prism, but one for whom I developed enormous respect and, indeed, affection. He actually wanted me to be a TA for him even though our views on issues were quite different, to put it mildly. He was a wonderful professor and the course was extraordinary. Every single session, there would be a new intellectual experience. One day it was the global head of the coalition for nuclear disarmament; another time it might be one of [members of] the group that was arguing for no first use of nuclear weapons; another time it was an international legal scholar on the use of force. It was just a wonderfully stimulating and broadening and enjoyable course. I wrote a paper instead of taking the final exam, and it was titled "Invasion of Granada: Illegal, Immoral, and The Right Thing to Do," and he was quite intrigued by it. He actually gave me an A+ for it. It was wonderful.
DP: Was there any particular moment at Princeton that you felt you had overcome a huge challenge and that you would say was your biggest success?
DP GS '85 GS '87: I had to take the macroeconomics exam having never stepped foot in a macroeconomics class because of course conflicts between the MBA and the Ph.D. I found in the rule book a statement that if you took a final exam of a course and got an A- or better, you got credit for the course, even if you never attended it. I never did attend it. I got the lecture notes and text, and I went through everything very, very carefully and assiduously. I met with the professor to nail down concepts that were particularly difficult. Keep in mind it’s all advanced math, differential calculus and so forth, which I hadn’t used in a number of years. So, ultimately, I took the exam, and I got an A- and that really was the ultimate key to completing all those Ph.D. requirements.
DP: You’ve had such an impressive career, both in academia and beyond. Where do you think your ambition and your penchant for hard work come from?
DP GS '85 GS '87: I think, from an early age, my father, who was a stubborn Dutch sea captain who came to the United States at the outbreak of World War II and sailed for the United States Merchant Marine throughout the war, he sort of imparted that life is a competitive endeavor. If you want to achieve something, you need to commit to it, work exceedingly hard, obviously try to do the very best you can, including, by the way, being the best team player you can be in many occasions as well. So it’s not just about being number one, it’s about helping the team as well. At the end of the day, you have to commit. You have to go all in, as you will, on what it is you’re striving to accomplish. I didn’t dream that I was going to be as fortunate as I was. Some of that is obviously luck and timing at a certain point. But there’s also this saying from Seneca the Younger, a Roman philosopher who reportedly said that "luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity." I’d like to think that I was prepared when the call came for the three different tours in Iraq, which ended up four full years of combat there. Prior to that, when the call came for a year in Bosnia, a tour with the United Nations in Haiti, and then, subsequently, command of U.S. Central Command, which is the whole Middle East and Central Asia, and then the command in Afghanistan, and, of course, the directorship of the CIA, which was also just a wonderful, wonderful organization and a true privilege.
DP: Has there been any kind of guiding mantra or value that you’ve kept in mind or used throughout your career?
DP GS '85 GS '87: When I was a battalion commander or a lieutenant colonel, a captain came into the office one time and said, "You know sir, winners win stuff," and I said, "That’s pretty profound," and it is. Over the years, with the units I was privileged to lead, we did try to achieve excellence, really, and I mean truly, committed to it. And, again, some of that is excellence being the best team player as well. It’s sort of a culture. It’s a culture of excellence, a pursuit of excellence, and so forth. There’s setbacks as well as successes. I’ve obviously had some of those, and, when you have them, you are reminded that the marking of a man sometimes is not how you deal with success, that’s pretty easy, it’s how you deal with setbacks. Again, I’ve obviously had personal experience with that, on the battlefield and in life in general. You learn what you can from setbacks as well as successes and then drive on. I had setbacks at Princeton. I actually got, I think a D, on my first macroeconomics exam. I mean, when I entered advanced, graduate level economics, I didn’t know that the supply curve went up and that the demand curve went down. I was going through Samuelson’s basic economics text, trying to figure that out, and then going to class and getting [economics] at the advanced level. So, there were really tough moments there, academically. Ultimately, again, thankfully, I got an A in that course, but there were some moments where you really had to redouble your efforts and stay after it. Thankfully, years of military — I’d been in the military for nine years I guess when I entered graduate school — that had helped.