The Take

Obama and Petraeus: A wary relationship

"Obama's Wars," released Sept. 27, 2010, recounts how the president crafted his own strategy for a way out of Afghanistan.
Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 1, 2010; 12:03 PM

Everyone believes the most important relationship in Washington next year will be between President Obama and House Republican Leader John Boehner. A case can be made that equally important will be the relationship between the president and his commander in Afghanistan, Army Gen. David H. Petraeus.

Bob Woodward's powerful new book, "Obama's Wars," underscores the delicacy of the relationship between Obama and Petraeus by highlighting the tensions that have long existed between the two ambitious and competitive men.

In Petraeus, Obama is dealing with perhaps the most recognized and acclaimed general of this generation, a skillful bureaucratic infighter who also has an almost unique ability among senior military officers to communicate outside normal channels through the media.

Woodward offers this example. At one point during the Afghan review, Petraeus awoke to a newspaper column critical of the counterinsurgency strategy. To counter the criticism, he phoned another columnist to make the case for it. "Obama and several of his staffers were furious," Woodward writes. "It angered Obama that Petraeus was publicly lobbying and prejudging a presidential decision."

Obama and Petraeus have dealt with one another warily since the president was a candidate. Obama was a vocal opponent of Iraq war, opposed Bush's troop surge policy and favored a fixed timetable for withdrawing troops. Petraeus was seen as Bush's favorite general and the architect of the strategy employed under the surge policy.

Their first meeting came in the July 2008 when Obama was visiting Iraq as a candidate. They were photographed together in a helicopter. Both were smiling, but their meeting was a standoff. Petraeus made the case for the surge and for flexibility on withdrawing troops. Obama said that, if he became president, he would deal with Iraq in a broader context, meaning he would listen to Petraeus's advice but not necessarily take it.

Both can claim they got their way on Iraq. The surge was judged a success, adding to Petraeus's prestige. Obama has been grudging about acknowledging that he misjudged its potential to reduce the violence. But Obama was able to announce in August that he had kept his campaign promise to remove all combat forces.

They are now comrades in arms in Afghanistan, looking toward a July 2011 deadline that is supposed to begin the drawdown of U.S. forces there. The coming year could bring a test of wills between a strong-minded president determined to avoid a lengthy commitment in a war that is already nine years old and a strong-minded general who does not want to be rushed by deadlines or timetables to accomplish what he has set out to do.

In Iraq, Petraeus was the face of the surge policy, in large part because no one else in the government at the time, especially Bush, had the public credibility to do so. It's doubtful Obama wants Petraeus to be so dominant a figure with regard to Afghanistan.

That Obama and Petraeus find themselves in this position is, of course, an accident of history. Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal was to have been the commander in Afghanistan, with Petraeus commander of the U.S. Central Command. But damaging comments by the general and his aides in a damaging Rolling Stone article forced Obama to relieve him of his command.

Obama turned to Petraeus to take over in Afghanistan, in essence asking the general to take a demotion for the good of the country. It was regarded as a brilliant choice at the time and quickly doused a potentially larger controversy over Obama's relationship with the military.

But the irony was not lost on some of the president's closest advisers that, while Petraeus was the ideal person to replace McChrystal, he could present a more formidable obstacle to Obama in his desire to make next summer a genuine turning point in the U.S. mission in Afghanistan.

The damning portrait Woodward draws in his book is of a White House team constantly at odds with the military and a president repeatedly frustrated by what he and his advisers saw as the military's effort to thwart his requests.

Obama's ultimate decision called for a major escalation in the U.S. effort, sending 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan. At the time, the number of troops was close enough to the 40,000 originally requested that it looked like Obama had yielded to the generals. Woodward's book helps explain why, at the time, White House officials regarded the decision as the president resisting efforts at railroading by the generals.

The White House and the Pentagon have sent conflicting signals about the July 2011 deadline. Military officials, including Petraeus, have suggested there is considerable wiggle room. The president and Vice President Biden have tried repeatedly to suggest there will be big changes starting next July.

Obama and his team know that the Democratic base is already unhappy with the commitment to Afghanistan. What they need from Petraeus is both demonstrable success in a war that has not gone well and the assurance that he can vouch for the start of a genuine handoff to the Afghans. What is not known is what assurances Petraeus may have asked for in terms of making the decision as conditions-based as he likes.

Bush administration officials came to regard Petraeus not only as skilled inside player but ultimately a team player as well, despite his reputation for attracting attention to himself. That would suggest that come next summer he will find a way to satisfy his commander-in-chief - but perhaps not before another tense struggle with the White House.

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