Bush Listens Closely To His Man in Iraq
Sunday, April 6, 2008
For months, a debate raged at the top levels of the Bush administration over how quickly to reduce the number of U.S. troops in Iraq. But the discussion shut down soon after President Bush flew to Camp Arifjan, a dusty Army base near the Iraqi border in Kuwait, in January for a face-to-face meeting with the man whose counsel on the war he values most: Gen. David H. Petraeus.
During an 80-minute session, the president questioned his top commander in Iraq on whether further troop reductions, beyond those planned through July, would compromise security gains. According to officials familiar with the exchange, Petraeus said he wanted to wait until the summer to evaluate conditions -- and Bush made it clear he would support him and take any political heat.
"My attitude is, if he didn't want to continue the drawdown, that's fine with me," Bush said before television cameras later, with Petraeus standing by his side. "I said to the general: 'If you want to slow her down, fine; it's up to you.' "
In the waning months of his administration, Bush has hitched his fortunes to those of his bookish four-star general, bypassing several levels of the military chain of command to give Petraeus a privileged voice in White House deliberations over Iraq, according to current and former administration officials and retired officers. In so doing, Bush's working relationship with his field commander has taken on an intensity that is rare in the history of the nation's wartime presidents.
Those ties will be on display this week, when Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker report to Congress on progress in Iraq, and when Bush is expected to announce a decision on future force levels. By all accounts, Petraeus's view that a "pause" is needed this summer before troop cuts can continue has prevailed in the White House, trumping concerns by the Joint Chiefs of Staff and others that the Army's long-term health could be threatened by the enduring presence of many combat forces in Iraq.
Bush's reliance on Petraeus has made other military officials uneasy, has rankled congressional Democrats and has created friction that helped spur the departure last month of Adm. William J. "Fox" Fallon, who, while Petraeus's boss as chief of U.S. Central Command, found his voice eclipsed on Iraq.
Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said Bush should rely primarily on the advice of Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Adm. Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "Not only are they General Petraeus's superiors," Levin said, "but they have the broad view of our national security needs, including Afghanistan, and the risks posed by stretching the force too thin."
Administration officials say it is natural that Bush would give extra weight to the views of his commander on the ground, especially one whose congressional testimony in September helped deflect efforts to force a withdrawal. Current and former officials also said Petraeus has gained Bush's trust largely because he is delivering results in Iraq, after the president lost confidence in the strategy pursued in 2006 by then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld; Gen. George W. Casey Jr., then a top commander in Iraq; and Gen. John P. Abizaid, then chief of Centcom.
The president felt frustrated that he could not "get out of either Abizaid or Casey any coherent description of how we were going to defeat the enemy" as sectarian violence spiraled in Baghdad, one former official said. That led Bush to overrule his military advisers last year, order a "surge" of 30,000 additional U.S. forces to Iraq, and search for a new field commander who would be more in line with his views on how best to wage the war.
In an interview, Gates dismissed the notion that Petraeus has unusual access to the White House on Iraq, stressing that Bush hears the unfiltered views of several key military players: Petraeus; the Centcom chief, who brings a broader perspective on the Middle East; the Joint Chiefs, who are responsible for the health of the military; and Gates himself.
"I want to make sure the president does not just listen to one voice," said Gates, emphasizing that "Petraeus does not have any special line to the president."
Others see Bush's reliance on Petraeus as part of a larger pattern. "It is part of Bush's overall management style -- to cede responsibility to a lower level and not look carefully at critical issues himself," said Kenneth Adelman, a Reagan-era official who has parted company with such longtime friends as Rumsfeld and Vice President Cheney over the war. "Originally on Iraq, it was whatever Rumsfeld wanted. Then it was whatever Jerry Bremer did," he said, referring to the former Coalition Provisional Authority chief. "And now it is whatever Petraeus wants."