Putting the War on Autopilot

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, April 24, 2008; 1:28 PM

While four out of five Americans want the next president to take the country in a new direction, President Bush is trying to lock in the current course beyond his presidency -- starting with his plans for the Middle East.

Julian E. Barnes writes in the Los Angeles Times: "In promoting Army Gen. David H. Petraeus to commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, President Bush is doing more than rewarding a job well done in Iraq. The president also is taking a step toward perpetuating his policy of high troop levels in Iraq and is putting his most trusted general in charge of renewing the military's focus on Iran.

"Petraeus has been the prime advocate of Bush's policy of a large troop presence in Iraq. By naming Petraeus to a job that lasts into the next administration, Bush ensures that the new president will confront the military's strongest voice for maintaining a big force in Iraq.

"And Petraeus has emerged as a leading critic of Iran's interference in Iraq, making his appointment a signal of heightened U.S. attention to Tehran."

Robert Burns writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush is promoting his top Iraq commander, Army Gen. David Petraeus, and replacing him with the general's recent deputy, keeping the U.S. on its war course and handing the next president a pair of combat-tested commanders who have relentlessly defended Bush's strategies. . . .

"The next president taking office in January would not be compelled to keep either Petraeus or [Lt. Gen. Ray] Odierno, but normally the lineup of senior commanders -- as well as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff -- is not changed with administrations.

"'There is no precedent in U.S. tradition for a new president changing these kinds of officers,' said Stephen Biddle, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and an occasional adviser to Petraeus. 'For an incoming president to change them (in 2009) would be a real statement.'"

Spencer Ackerman writes for the Washington Independent: "A potential responsibility of the next Central Command chief -- if either Sen. Barack Obama or Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton becomes president -- will be to plan for an orderly withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq. But at his congressional testimony earlier this month, Petraeus conspicuously declined to say whether he would, as Iraq commander, plan for withdrawal."

Aamer Madhani writes in the Chicago Tribune that Bush has now "laid the groundwork for the next president with a pair of generals who have spoken sternly about Iran and cautioned against pulling out of Iraq too quickly. . . .

"Petraeus' predecessor at Centcom, [Adm. William] Fallon, abruptly resigned last month after 41 years of military service. Fallon's views on Iran and the region in general had sometimes conflicted with the Bush administration's outlook.

"In a profile of Fallon in Esquire magazine earlier this year, the now-retired admiral was portrayed as the one man standing in the way of Bush going to war against Iran. In announcing his resignation, Fallon said the perception that he was out of step with Bush had become a distraction."

AFP reports that at yesterday's announcement of the moves, Defense Secretary Robert Gates "was asked whether Petraeus' nomination signaled a turn to a harder line on Iran than that taken by Fallon, who had emphasized diplomacy and dialogue in dealing with the Islamic republic. . . .

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