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New Face on a Tough War

By David Ignatius
Wednesday, January 24, 2007

For a nation bitterly divided over Iraq, the one point of agreement seems to be that Lt. Gen. David Petraeus is the right commander for U.S. forces in Baghdad. That gives Petraeus a surge of the most important strategic asset in this war -- which is time. But it also locks him into an awkward role for a professional military officer, as chief public spokesman for a war the public has come to doubt.

As long as Iraq was "Bush's war," it looked like a lost cause. This week, it became in part "Petraeus's war." The fundamentals on the ground appear as bleak as ever, and polls show the public doubts the war is winnable. But Petraeus offers something new: He is the last frail hope for a bipartisan consensus on Iraq.

Petraeus won plaudits yesterday from nearly every member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, continuing the celebratory tone that greeted his nomination by President Bush. Even Sen. Edward Kennedy, one of the sharpest critics of the war, had good things to say about the new commander. It was a momentary honeymoon from acrimonious debate.

The accolades for Petraeus symbolize a deeper change, one that carries benefits and risks for the general and the troops he will lead. Bush and his senior advisers have been wrong so many times on Iraq that the public no longer trusts them to frame a successful strategy. So now the public face of the war passes to a bright, ambitious general. It is an intensely political role, and it puts Petraeus in a hot seat that many military officers try to avoid.

Petraeus doesn't want to play politics. He tells friends that he doesn't vote in presidential elections, to maintain his political independence. In that, he emulates Gen. George Marshall, the architect of the Allied victory in World War II. But this is an inherently political command. As Petraeus answered questions yesterday from Sen. John McCain -- who is building his presidential campaign on the need for a troop surge and ultimate victory in Iraq -- it was clear just how charged the commander's job will be. As the publicly anointed "last, best hope" of a failing war, his actions will shape the key issue of the 2008 campaign.

Petraeus has embraced this kind of high-risk mission before. Indeed, he seems to thrive on the public role that many military officers shun. When he took command of the training of Iraqi forces in mid-2004, Newsweek featured Petraeus on its cover and asked, "Can This Man Save Iraq?" That prominence engendered some ill will among other officers, who saw him as too eager for publicity. But, at this point, I sense that senior officers wish him well. He's taking on a supremely demanding job that most know they couldn't do. And he's betting his carefully groomed reputation on the relatively small chance that he can salvage an American victory.

The smartest thing Petraeus has done is to draw Congress into his confidence, as co-manager of the new strategy. In his testimony yesterday, he promised regular progress reports and pledged to tell Congress if he decides that the new strategy can't succeed. The flip side is that Petraeus will tell Congress whether he needs more troops, which may prove to be the case. Petraeus helped draft the new counterinsurgency field manual, which warns that successful operations "often require a high ratio of security forces to the protected population." It's hard to believe that 21,500 more troops will be enough to protect an Iraqi population in the midst of a civil war.

Petraeus knows how tough his new job will be: He told senators yesterday that many of the e-mails he received over the past two weeks had as their subject line "Congratulations, I think." Asked about troop morale, he gave an answer that will surely apply to him in the wearying, testing days ahead: "One day at a time, sometimes one foot in front of the other."

I spent a week traveling with Petraeus in Iraq in 2004, and another week with him in 2005. As he visited with Iraqi troops, I often heard him repeat one of his trademark phrases: "We'll see who has tiny hearts" -- meaning he would see who among the Iraqi officers was really willing to fight.

Petraeus is no "tiny heart." He believes in the power of his will to overcome adversity and prevail on the battlefield. That confidence is a necessary quality for a commander, but it is not sufficient to ensure success. Congress had a rare moment of unity yesterday in wishing Petraeus good luck as he heads back to Iraq, even as Petraeus himself must be wondering, deep down, whether he has taken on a mission impossible.

The writer co-hosts, with Newsweek's Fareed Zakaria, PostGlobal, an online discussion of international issues athttp://blog.washingtonpost.com/postglobal. His e-mail address isdavidignatius@washpost.com.

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