David Petraeus: Trump's Syria Strike 'Right Action To Take'

General (Ret.) David Petraeus praised President Donald Trump's decision to launch 59 Tomahawk missiles at a Syrian government-controlled airfield last Sunday, saying that "the strike was the right action to take" and that it was a "very important moment for Trump and his team."

But, Petraeus warned, calling the attack successful is premature.

"One strike does not a strategy make," he said.

Petraeus made these remarks on Tuesday during a wide-ranging conversation with Asia Society CEO and President Josette Sheeran. The two discussed Petraeus' upbringing and military career as well as contemporary foreign policy concerns. But much of the conversation revolved around President Trump's surprising engagement in Syria's civil war, a crisis the president had once vowed to stay out of.

Petraeus even hinted Sunday's missile strike may have failed to go far enough. "I might have hoped we'd do a bit more damage," he told Sheeran. "You get an excuse like [Syria's use of chemical weapons], you might as well make the most of it."

Few Americans have as much experience in the region as Petraeus. During a career that spanned over three decades, the four-star general had stints as the supreme commander of U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, the commander of U.S. Central Command, and the director of the Central Intelligence Agency. These qualifications led Trump to consider Petraeus as the next U.S. secretary of state, a position that ultimately went to former Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson.

Petraeus had high praise for President Trump's national security team, particularly Secretary of Defense James Mattis, with whom Petraeus served in the military. Petraeus described Mattis as "awesome" but wryly added that his fellow general "knows he's more quotable than he sometimes should be." Petraeus also singled out Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor who has emerged as a forceful advocate for U.S. interests as the country's representative to the United Nations. "Who would have thought that this [former] governor of a southern state would have this kind of impact?" he said.

But Petraeus pointed out that he did not agree with President Trump on everything. He cited Trump's withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement as a mistake, and also criticized the president's hardline position on immigration. Petraeus told Sheeran that it was imperative for the U.S. to keep highly-skilled immigrants in the country.

"Every time you hit Iran with sanctions, you should give [Iranian people] H1B visas," he said, referring to a program that allows foreign nationals to work temporarily in the United States.

Though much of the conversation consisted of a tour d'horizon of U.S. foreign policy issues, Petraeus also discussed his parents, his childhood north of New York City, and his courtship of Holly Knowlton, to whom he has been married since 1974. 

Throughout the conversation Petraeus struck a cautious note on a number of subjects, reminding the audience that solving crises with Syria, North Korea, and the Islamic State would not be easy. But the 64-year-old retired general expressed a great deal of confidence in younger Americans, particularly those who have served their country since the September 11 attacks. He recounted a conversation in which Tom Brokaw, the former NBC News anchor (and Asia Society trustee emeritus) whose The Greatest Generation is widely celebrated, referred to those Americans fighting in the early 21st century as "the new greatest generation."

"I couldn't agree more," Petraeus said. "And I've stated that repeatedly."

Watch the complete program in the video below. 

About the Author

Profile picture for user Matt Schiavenza

Matt Schiavenza is the Assistant Director of Content at Asia Society. His work has appeared at The Atlantic, The Daily Beast, The New Republic, Fortune, and strategy + business among other publications.