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'You're Not Accountable, Jack'

Earlier in the week, Petraeus had testified before Congress. After two days in the national spotlight -- cautiously reporting progress in the war but warning that conditions were "fragile and reversible" -- he was about to head back to Baghdad.

The two men sat alone. Keane took out the piece of paper and read the president's message, verbatim, aloud to Petraeus:

"I respect the chain of command. I know that the Joint Chiefs and the Pentagon have some concerns. One is about the Army and Marine Corps and the impact of the war on them. And the second is about other contingencies and the lack of strategic response to those contingencies.

"I want Dave to know that I want him to win. That's the mission. He will have as much force as he needs for as long as he needs it.

"When he feels he wants to make further reductions, he should only make those reductions based on the conditions in Iraq that he believes justify those reductions. These two concerns that we are discussing back here in Washington -- about contingency operations and the needs of the Army and the Marine Corps -- they are not your concerns. They are my concerns.

"I do not want to change the strategy until the strategy has succeeded. I waited over three years for a successful strategy. And I'm not giving up on it prematurely. I am not reducing further unless you are convinced that we should reduce further."

It was a message of total support. No ground commander could ask for more. That Bush had sent it through this back channel, or even at all, revealed the depth and intensity of disagreements between the president and the military establishment in Washington.

After hearing the president's message, Petraeus told Keane, "I wish he'd tell CentCom and the Pentagon that." These were the people he had to deal with every day, and they had a very different perspective.

National security adviser Steven J. Hadley and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates did not know of the president's back-channel contact with Petraeus. When I asked the president in May 2008 about his message, Bush explained why he had felt a need to send it.

"I just want Dave to know that I want to win," he said. "And whatever he needs, obviously within capabilities, he'll have. I don't want my commander to think that they're dealing with a president who's so overly concerned about the latest Gallup poll or politics that he is worried about making a decision or recommendation that will make me feel uncomfortable."

* * *

The senior military leadership in Washington, though unaware of the extent of Keane's role, was uncomfortable with his frequent visits to Iraq and his influence at the White House.

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