washingtonpost.com
Bush Listens Closely To His Man in Iraq
In White House Deliberations on War, Gen. Petraeus Has a Privileged Voice

By Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
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."

Historically, a Departure

Bush's relationship with Petraeus marks a departure for modern war presidencies. Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, Lyndon B. Johnson, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton left it largely to their military advisers in Washington to communicate with field commanders, according to scholars of civilian-military relations.

During the 1991 Persian Gulf War, for instance, then-Joint Chiefs Chairman Colin L. Powell established himself as the sole broker between George H.W. Bush and the field commander, Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf. Similarly, during the war in Kosovo, retired Army Gen. Wesley K. Clark, former supreme commander of NATO, reports that he worked through Clinton aides and Defense Secretary William S. Cohen; when Clark came to the White House to brief officials about his war strategy in 1998, he spoke with national security adviser Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger, not the president.

But during the George W. Bush administration, improved videoconferencing technology has allowed the president to communicate to an unprecedented degree with commanders on the battlefield and, his advisers say, immerse himself in the details of the war. Bush has also held videoconferences with Casey and other previous Iraq commanders, but after Petraeus and Crocker were appointed last year, the process was institutionalized in a regular Monday morning war council between Washington and Baghdad. (A similar Afghanistan meeting takes place every two to three weeks, a White House spokesman said.)

Before Petraeus took over as head of Multi-National Force-Iraq in early 2007, he had had little interaction with Bush. Indeed, after his stints as commander of the 101st Airborne Division and as head of U.S. training efforts in Iraq won much media attention, the White House initially had reservations about tapping Petraeus for the top spot in Baghdad, a move suggested by Rumsfeld, among others.

But according to current and former administration officials, Bush thought that the war effort needed shaking up and that Petraeus, a West Point graduate and Princeton PhD widely considered one of the smartest officers of his generation, might prove an effective communicator with the public and the White House.

Indeed, those who have witnessed the Monday videoconferences describe Petraeus as a gifted briefer who moves beyond the dry recitation of the metrics of battle -- enemy killed and captured -- to describe how military developments interact with political ones. "He tees up issues that are ripe for decision-making, as opposed to going through the charts," said one person familiar with the sessions.

Bush, sitting in the White House Situation Room, often takes the lead on political issues, such as dealings with Iran or Iraqi politics. But officials said he is deferential to Petraeus on military matters. The president "sets the goals," Gates said. "He expects the military professional to handle the mission."

While Bush and Petraeus are said to have bonded over their love of exercise, administration officials describe their relationship as more professional than friendly. "You have a field commander and you have the president of the United States," Gates said. "They aren't backslapping buddies."

Still, the weekly sessions provide Petraeus a rare opportunity to present his ideas to the president and to work out problems trapped in interagency conflicts. Bush, meanwhile, can speak directly to his field general, get a real-time portrait of conditions on the ground and signal priorities to the full chain of command, including Gates, Mullen and the Centcom commander, all of whom are usually on the video with Petraeus and Crocker.

"It is a strange command relationship," observed Stephen D. Biddle, a military expert at the Council on Foreign Relations who has advised Petraeus in Iraq. While it has worked well in some ways, he said, "it creates the potential for a fair amount of mischief."

'A Confluence of Interests'

Such mischief may have been on display last year, when Petraeus outmaneuvered Fallon for the president's ear on Iraq strategy. People familiar with the tension said Fallon was an early skeptic of the troop buildup and wanted U.S. engagement to end more quickly -- but found himself the odd man out when it became clear that Bush favored Petraeus's view.

Military officials said Fallon was known to refer to Petraeus and other commanders in Iraq as "the boys" in Baghdad, with whom he differed over military planning and the scale and pace of the drawdown. Fallon and other top military officials have also voiced their concerns to Congress, in public testimony and behind closed doors.

Petraeus has dismissed reports of conflict with Fallon as overdrawn, while Gates said that Petraeus, Fallon and the Joint Chiefs each "had a different analytical framework" on Iraq, but "ended up in the same place" last September.

In the months since that meeting in Kuwait, other key figures have fallen in line. Gates, who had previously raised the prospect of a faster pullout, indicated that he could live with a "pause" after meeting with Petraeus in Baghdad in February. Members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, although nervous about the strain Iraq poses on U.S. forces, appear ready to live with it, as well. Meanwhile, Fallon abruptly resigned last month.

Some officials said Petraeus is pushing on an open door with Bush. The president has privately expressed impatience with military concerns over the health of the force, telling the Joint Chiefs that if they are worried about breaking the Army, the worst thing would be to lose in Iraq, according to people familiar with the conversations.

Petraeus, who considers himself an apolitical general, has sought to present independent military judgment: He has consistently sounded a more sober note on Iraq than Bush, and once again he will not vet this week's testimony with the White House -- a move that drew wonder in military circles last fall.

But Army Col. Lance Betros, a historian at West Point, sees a mutual interest binding the president and the general. "Bush's political legacy is at stake; he wants desperately for things to succeed in Iraq," he said. "Petraeus is a general; we do not hire generals to fail. . . . They are on the same wavelength; they have the same objectives. It's a confluence of interests, not necessarily a personal relationship."

Staff writers Ann Scott Tyson and Robin Wright and staff researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company