For a man whose critics say he is far too fond of the television cameras, General David Petraeus, commander of US forces in Iraq, has been rather out of the limelight this Christmas.
The sprightly, media-friendly 55-year-old is not perturbed, however, that his face is no longer number one item on the US networks. As he said last week, where Iraq is concerned, “No news is good news.”
Today, we put him in the spotlight again by naming Gen Petraeus as The Sunday Telegraph’s Person of the Year, a new annual accolade to recognise outstanding individual achievement.
He has been the man behind the US troop surge over the past 10 months, the last-ditch effort to end Iraq’s escalating civil war by putting an extra 28,000 American troops on the ground.
So far, it has achieved what many feared was impossible. Sectarian killings are down. Al-Qaeda is on the run. And the two million Iraqis who fled the country are slowly returning. Progress in Iraq is relative – 538 civilians died last month. But compared with the 3,000 peak of December last year, it offers at least a glimmer of hope.
Nonetheless, why should we choose to nominate Petraeus
There has, after all, been no shortage of other candidates this year. President Nicolas Sarkozy has impressed many with his determination to reform France, while George Osborne reinvigorated politics in this country by daring to put tax cuts back on the agenda – though both men still have much to prove.
There are plenty of brave figures thrust into the limelight who handled themselves with dignity, such as Gillian Gibbons, the teacher jailed in Sudan; the Glasgow airport luggage-handler John Smeaton; and Kate and Gerry McCann. Sporting stars such as Paula Radcliffe and Lewis Hamilton have inspired millions of fans.
There has also been great British military leadership and bravery on display this year, not least in Helmand, where British troops are now fighting a Taliban foe as fierce as anything their American counterparts encountered in Baghdad or Fallujah.
But the reason for picking Petraeus is simple. Iraq, whatever the current crises in Afghanistan and Pakistan, remains the West’s biggest foreign policy challenge of this decade, and if he can halt its slide into all-out anarchy, Gen Petraeus may save more than Iraqi lives.
A failed Iraq would not just be a second Vietnam, nor would it just be America’s problem.
It would be a symbolic victory for al-Qaeda, a safe haven for jihadists to plot future September 11s and July 7s, and a battleground for a Shia-Sunni struggle that could draw in the entire Middle East. Our future peace and prosperity depend, in part, on fixing this mess. And, a year ago, few had much hope.
To appreciate the scale of the task Gen Petraeus took on, it is necessary to go back to February 22, 2006. Or, as Iraqis now refer to it, their own September 11. That was when Sunni-led terrorists from al-Qaeda blew up the Shia shrine in the city of Samarra, an act of provocation that finally achieved their goal of igniting sectarian civil war.
A year on, an estimated 34,000 people had been killed on either side – some of them members of the warring Sunni and Shia militias, but most innocents tortured and killed at random. US casualties continued to rise, too, but increasingly American troops became the bystanders in a religious conflict that many believed they could no longer tame.
Except, that is, for Gen Petraeus. Despite his well-documented obsession with fitness – he starts his 18-hour days with a five-mile run – he is the opposite of the brawn-over-brain image that has dogged the US military mission in Iraq.
Top of the class of 1974 at West Point Military Academy and the holder of a PhD in international relations, he is the co author of the US military’s manual on counter-insurgency, a “warrior monk” for whom the messy intrigues of asymmetric warfare hold more interest than the straightforward challenges of 2003’s invasion.
Simply being the best and brightest soldier of his generation, however, would not be enough for Iraq in 2007, where a major part of the “surge” involves reconciling Iraq’s warring political tribes.
When the White House called, confirming him for the job, President Bush was looking not just for an outstanding leader but also a diplomat, a politician and a negotiator. It seems he got them all.
“Petraeus has a rare combination of great geopolitical skills as well as tactical and military ones,” says retired General Jack Keane, a fellow architect of the surge strategy. “He is good at working with ambassadors, with the Iraqi government, and he also knows how to cope with uncertainty and failure, which is what you get in an environment like Iraq.”
Lest Gen Keane seem a little biased, it should be pointed out that British commanders hold Gen Petraeus in similarly high regard.
Several Northern Ireland veterans who worked with him in Baghdad this year came away with the opinion that it is now America, not Britain, that is the world leader in counter-insurgency.
As Petraeus toured some of Baghdad’s abandoned, bullet-scarred Sunni neighbourhoods last February, his own comrades were not the only ones predicting he might fail spectacularly.
Among the US public, the clamour grew for the troops to be brought home altogether, and Iraq to be declared a lost cause unworthy of further American sacrifice.
The surge’s “boots on the ground” strategy would simply force the militias into temporary hiding, critics said, wasting thousands more Americans lives in the process.
The strategy’s chances of success were commonly put at only one in three – and those were the odds quoted by its supporters. Indeed, when The Sunday Telegraph visited Baghdad in the spring, US troops were candid about their expectations.
“Sure, the bad guys will go into hiding,” said one commander in Jamia, an al-Qaeda-infested neighbourhood with 30 murders a month. “All we can hope is that things will have improved by the time they come back, so they’re no longer welcome.”
Nine months on, things do seem to have improved, thanks largely to Petraeus’s extraordinary coup of turning Sunni insurgents against their extremist allies in al-Qaeda.
With the chief accelerant in the civil war gone, Shia militias such as the Mehdi Army have also been deprived of their main raison d’être, and with extra US troops on the streets, Iraqis who had previously felt vulnerable to the gunmen now feel safe enough to return home.
Things are far from perfect but, after four years in which events did nothing but get worse, the sight of a souk re-opening, or a Shia family being welcomed back home by their Sunni neighbours, has remarkable morale-boosting power.
Where once Iraqis saw the glass as virtually empty, now they can see a day when it might at least be half full.
True, post-Saddam Iraq has had a habit of confounding even the most cautious of optimists.
Iraq’s Shia-dominated government is not alone in worrying that the most controversial of Gen Petraeus’s policies – the co-opting of former Sunni insurgents into “concerned local citizens” schemes to fend off Shia militias – may create new, better-organised forces for a renewed civil war once the US finally departs.
Many coalition officials fear such a scenario. Were it to occur, it would confirm the charges of Petraeus’s critics that at best he has secured only a hiatus in the collapse of Iraq.
Ultimately, that may prove to be the case.
But it should not overshadow his achievement this year: he has given another last chance to a country that had long since ceased to expect one. And for that, Gen Petraeus is Person of the Year.