CENTCOM commander Gen. David Petraeus, supported
by Defense Secretary Robert Gates, tried to convince President Barack Obama
that he had to back down from his campaign pledge to withdraw all U.S. combat
troops from Iraq within 16 months at an Oval Office meeting Jan. 21.
But Obama informed Gates, Petraeus, and Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen
that he wasn't convinced and that he wanted Gates and the military leaders
to come back quickly with a detailed 16-month plan, according to two sources
who have talked with participants in the meeting.
Obama's decision to override Petraeus' recommendation has not ended the conflict
between the president and senior military officers over troop withdrawal, however.
There are indications that Petraeus and his allies in the military and the
Pentagon, including Gen. Ray Odierno, now the top commander in Iraq, have already
begun to try to pressure Obama to change his withdrawal policy.
A network of senior military officers is also reported to be preparing to
support Petraeus and Odierno by mobilizing public opinion against Obama's decision.
Petraeus was visibly unhappy when he left the Oval Office, according to one
of the sources. A White House staffer present at the meeting was quoted by
the source as saying, "Petraeus made the mistake of thinking he was still
dealing with George Bush instead of with Barack Obama."
Petraeus, Gates, and Odierno had hoped to sell Obama on a plan that they formulated
in the final months of the Bush administration that aimed at getting around
a key provision of the U.S.-Iraqi withdrawal agreement signed envisioned re-categorizing
large numbers of combat troops as support troops. That subterfuge was by the
United States last November while ostensibly allowing Obama to deliver on his
Gates and Mullen had discussed the relabeling scheme with Obama as part of
the Petraeus-Odierno plan for withdrawal they had presented to him in mid-December,
according to a Dec. 18 New York Times story.
Obama decided against making any public reference to his order to the military
to draft a detailed 16-month combat troop withdrawal policy, apparently so
that he can announce his decision only after consulting with his field commanders
and the Pentagon.
The first clear indication of the intention of Petraeus, Odierno, and their
allies to try to get Obama to amend his decision came on Jan. 29 when the New
York Times published an interview with Odierno, ostensibly based on the
premise that Obama had indicated that he was "open to alternatives."
The Times reported that Odierno had "developed a plan that would
move slower than Mr. Obama's campaign timetable" and had suggested in
an interview "it might take the rest of the year to determine exactly
when United States forces could be drawn down significantly."
The opening argument by the Petraeus-Odierno faction against Obama's withdrawal
policy was revealed the evening of the Jan. 21 meeting when retired Army Gen.
Jack Keane, one of the authors of the Bush troop surge policy and a close political
ally and mentor of Gen. Petraeus, appeared on the NewsHour with Jim
Lehrer to comment on Obama's pledge on Iraq combat troop withdrawal.
Keane, who had certainly been briefed by Petraeus on the outcome of the Oval
Office meeting, argued that implementing such a withdrawal of combat troops
would "increase the risk rather dramatically over the 16 months."
He asserted that it would jeopardize the "stable political situation in
Iraq" and called that risk "not acceptable."
The assertion that Obama's withdrawal policy threatens the gains allegedly
won by the Bush surge and Petraeus' strategy in Iraq will apparently be the
theme of the campaign that military opponents are now planning.
Keane, the Army vice-chief of staff from 1999 to 2003, has ties to a network
of active and retired four-star Army generals, and since Obama's Jan. 21 order
on the 16-month withdrawal plan, some of the retired four-star generals in
that network have begun discussing a campaign to blame Obama's troop withdrawal
from Iraq for the ultimate collapse of the political "stability"
that they expect to follow U.S. withdrawal, according to a military source
familiar with the network's plans.
The source says the network, which includes senior active duty officers in
the Pentagon, will begin making the argument to journalists covering the Pentagon
that Obama's withdrawal policy risks an eventual collapse in Iraq. That would
raise the political cost to Obama of sticking to his withdrawal policy.
If Obama does not change the policy, according to the source, they hope to
have planted the seeds of a future political narrative blaming his withdrawal
policy for the "collapse" they expect in an Iraq without U.S. troops.
That line seems likely to appeal to reporters covering the Iraq troop withdrawal
issue. Ever since Obama's inauguration, media coverage of the issue has treated
Obama' s 16-month withdrawal proposal as a concession to antiwar sentiment
which will have to be adjusted to the "realities" as defined by the
advice to Obama from Gates, Petraeus, and Odierno.
Ever since he began working on the troop surge, Keane has been the central
figure manipulating policy in order to keep as many U.S. troops in Iraq as
possible. It was Keane who got Vice President Dick Cheney to push for Petraeus
as top commander in Iraq in late 2006 when the existing commander, Gen. George
W. Casey, did not support the troop surge.
It was Keane who protected Petraeus' interests in ensuring the maximum number
of troops in Iraq against the efforts by other military leaders to accelerate
troop withdrawal in 2007 and 2008. As Bob Woodward reported in The
War Within, Keane persuaded President George W. Bush to override the
concerns of the Joint Chiefs of Staff about the stress of prolonged U.S. occupation
of Iraq on the U.S. Army and Marine Corps as well its impact on the worsening
situation in Afghanistan.
Bush agreed in September 2007 to guarantee that Petraeus would have as many
troops as he needed for as long as wanted, according to Woodward's account.
Keane had also prevailed on Gates in April 2008 to make Petraeus the new commander
of CENTCOM. Keane argued that keeping Petraeus in the field was the best insurance
against a Democratic administration reversing the Bush policy toward Iraq.
Keane had operated on the assumption that a Democratic president would probably
not take the political risk of rejecting Petraeus' recommendation on the pace
of troop withdrawal from Iraq. Woodward quotes Keane as telling Gates, "Let's
assume we have a Democratic administration and they want to pull this thing
out quickly, and now they have to deal with General Petraeus and General Odierno.
There will be a price to be paid to override them."
Obama told Petraeus in Baghdad last July that, if elected, he would regard
the overall health of the U.S. Army and Marine Corps and the situation in Afghanistan
as more important than Petraeus' obvious interest in maximizing U.S. troop
strength in Iraq, according to Time magazine's Joe Klein.
But judging from Petraeus' shock at Obama's Jan. 21 decision, he had not taken
Obama's previous rejection of his arguments seriously. That miscalculation
suggests that Petraeus had begun to accept Keane's assertion that a newly elected
Democratic president would not dare to override his policy recommendation on
troops in Iraq.
(Inter Press Service)