Petraeus Returns to War That Is Now His Own

By Peter Baker and Thomas E. Ricks
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, September 13, 2007

He sat absolutely still as members of Congress discussed his credibility and patriotism. His face did not twitch. He did not nod or frown or smile. Not a single muscle moved. He was as impassive as a boot-camp recruit resisting a drill sergeant's provocations.

For Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, navigating the political shoals of Washington this week has been a challenge unlike any he has faced. When he testified before the Senate for his confirmation hearing in January, Petraeus was widely regarded as the quintessential military professional, a credible, independent voice who stood above the political fray.

But when he returned to Capitol Hill this week for marathon hearings and a media blitz, the general labored to retain that image. Partisans sought to portray him either as a politicized officer carrying water for the White House or as the only possible savior of an increasingly unpopular war.

The war in Iraq has diminished the reputations of many of its generals. As Petraeus returns to Baghdad to continue carrying out President Bush's strategy, his image has changed as well. Like it or not, he has become a political player, and more than ever before, the U.S. venture in Iraq has become his own.

"Up until this week, it was Rumsfeld's war," said retired Army Lt. Col. James Jay Carafano, referring to former defense secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. "Now, for better or worse, it's Dave's war."

Petraeus appeared to be adjusting to his new reality yesterday. "I've tried to spend the last 33 years going around minefields instead of through them," he said wryly at the National Press Club.

Petraeus's strategy seemed to be to ignore the explosions all around him and keep plowing through the field. His first order of business in a joint House hearing Monday was to emphasize that his long-awaited congressional testimony had not been vetted by the administration. And publicly, at least, he took no notice of the MoveOn.org newspaper advertisement dubbing him "General Betray Us," just as he disregarded White House and Republican efforts to paint him as a martyr to left-wing smears.

Without doubt, his testimony bolstered Bush's position in the debate over the future of the war and provided Republicans a measure of political relief by recommending withdrawal of about 25,000 troops by next summer. Yet he did not toe the White House line completely, resisting efforts to portray Iraq as part of a global struggle against terrorism or predict that al-Qaeda will take over if U.S. forces pull out. Asked whether fighting in Iraq makes the United States safer, as Bush argues, he answered, "I don't know" -- a reply that was featured in another antiwar ad yesterday.

Petraeus, who holds a doctorate from Princeton, is no political naif, and he managed to emerge from the experience with even congressional Democrats praising his professionalism. As media-savvy as any top officer, he is granting 11 television interviews and 11 print interviews this week. Yet he will return to Baghdad the symbol of a deeply unpopular war and, to critics, his generation's Gen. William Westmoreland.

"He's more charismatic, to be sure, but he is exactly in the same position Westy was in in 1967 when he tried to make the case to Congress that victory was achievable in Vietnam," said Michael Desch, director of the Brent Scowcroft Institute of International Affairs at Texas A&M University's George Bush School of Government and Public Service.

Petraeus has assumed a higher profile than his predecessors in large part because of the White House. After Bush announced his troop buildup in January, he made Petraeus its public face, continually referring to "the Petraeus plan," although Petraeus did not develop it. The reason was simple: The general had more credibility than the president. Although Petraeus had been in charge of training Iraqi troops, a task still not finished, he earned Senate confirmation as Iraq commander without dissent. The White House then had him lobby lawmakers for the "surge."

Antiwar activists and some Democrats eventually turned on Petraeus. Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.) questioned the accuracy of the general's statements in June. But Democrats also made him the man to answer for the war by mandating in legislation that he report to Congress in September.

"We have defaulted to a military man to set the terms of the debate," said Rep. Joe Sestak (D-Pa.), a retired vice admiral. "I just think it's profoundly against the spirit of the Constitution. . . . Congress is as responsible as the president."

Petraeus held a powerful public image going into this week's hearings, with 52 percent of Americans polled by Gallup and USA Today reporting a favorable impression, compared with 17 percent who had an unfavorable view. Still, a Washington Post-ABC News poll found that 53 percent of respondents thought Petraeus would use his report to make things look better than they are.

MoveOn's ad pointed to news reports questioning the methodology of statistics Petraeus was citing to argue that security had improved in Iraq, accusing him of "cooking the books for the White House." But congressional Democrats recoiled from the strident tone and distanced themselves. "We needed to stay away from General Petraeus and focus on making this Bush's war," said a Senate Democratic leadership aide.

Rep. Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, tried to do that in an interview yesterday. "He's a great patriot," Emanuel said of Petraeus. "But you can't sit around and say it's General Petraeus's decision. We are all elected to represent the American people, and they get a vote, too."

Republicans considered the MoveOn ad a political boon. "The general was made a political pi?ata, and I don't think it worked," said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.). "Quite frankly, I think the MoveOn.org ad backfired."

Eli Pariser, executive director of MoveOn, said Petraeus was fair game. "If you have a general who is being willfully misleading to the public and the Congress about the state of a military endeavor, that's a big problem," he said.

Other war skeptics picked up on the credibility question. An online column yesterday by Tom Engelhardt, a fellow at the Nation Institute, called Petraeus "the Paris Hilton of generals" -- that is, "a vain media darling with almost no credibility." On Comedy Central's "Daily Show" on Tuesday, host Jon Stewart summarized Petraeus's testimony as meaning that "the president's been right the whole time."

The politics of the Iraq war have been particularly hard on American generals. Even before the conflict began, Gen. Eric K. Shinseki, then the Army's chief of staff, found himself at odds with the administration when he publicly questioned the size of the proposed occupation force. The commander of the invasion, Gen. Tommy R. Franks, was criticized by some in the military as too deferential to Rumsfeld's demands to further trim the size of the invading force, and later for retiring just as an insurgency was brewing. Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez, the next commander in Iraq, presided over a deepening war and the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal. Sanchez was followed by Gen. George W. Casey Jr., recently depicted as pursuing a failed policy seeking to pass security responsibilities to unprepared Iraqi forces even as a low-level civil war threatened to blow apart Iraq last year.

But until now, most criticism of generals in the Iraq war has been about military judgments rather than integrity.

Howard Zinn, a leftist scholar, said debate about Petraeus's role is not surprising: "When I listen to Petraeus, I hear the generals of Vietnam assuring us that they are winning. Generals are not independent thinkers. They serve the political goals of the administration. We can't expect independent, honest assessments of the situation."

Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.

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