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50 People Who Matter 2010 | 12. David Petraeus

General knowledge.

Not since Dwight D Eisenhower 60 years ago has the US produced a general as revered and celebrated, by the press and public alike, as David Petraeus.

Could he be the first general since Eisenhower to reach the White House? Praised by his allies in the media, the Pentagon and Congress as a scholar-soldier, he certainly has the intellectual stature and political savvy required for the job.

The cerebral general, a West Point graduate with a PhD in international relations from Princeton, transformed US military thinking on counter-insurgency (or "Coin") with his acclaimed field manual on the subject in 2006, and has been urged to run for the presidency in 2012 or, more likely, 2016, as the Republican candidate.

Credited with turning around the disastrous US campaign in Iraq, Petraeus now faces the daunting task of repeating the feat in Afghanistan. He has already clashed with the White House over President Obama's pledge to begin withdrawing troops in July 2011, insisting that it is a date "when a process begins, not the date when the US heads for the exits".

Petraeus, says an American diplomat who knows the general well, is "extremely driven and his charm and intellect cloak a competitive streak".

Twelve of the 43 men who have served as president of the United States have been retired generals, including the original occupant of the Oval Office, George Washington*. Obama would do well to be wary of this competitive, self-promoting four-star general.

*Correction: Howard Taft (27) was the first president to occupy the Oval Office, and John Adams (2) the first to occupy the White House. Niether were generals.

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Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 27 September 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The 50 people who matter