Petraeus steps into political storm

April 08, 2008|By Peter Spiegel and Julian E. Barnes | Peter Spiegel and Julian E. Barnes,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- The weeklong cavalcade that will accompany Army Gen. David Petraeus' return to Washington today will look much like his pivotal visit in September: formal testimony, talk show appearances, and lots of charts and graphs.

But this time, the U.S. commander's presentation to Congress on Iraq collides head-on with a raging presidential campaign and two Democratic candidates demanding almost the opposite of his advice.

The change could prove jarring. For more than a year, Petraeus had the benefit of a commander in chief who was invested heavily in the same manpower-intensive strategy that he has advocated. But he returns to Washington at a time when the country's political leadership might soon veer sharply from the course he is advocating.

His main recommendations have been known for weeks: Draw down the troops that were part of the buildup through July, he will say, then wait a while to make sure Iraq doesn't fall apart.

It is high political drama for a battlefield commander to march to Capitol Hill during the most closely watched presidential campaign in a generation. As if that were not enough, each of the anti-war Democrats who would be his new boss - Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama - sit on committees that will hear from Petraeus on his first day of testimony.

"The most interesting part of this is not going to be how Obama and Clinton behave, but how Petraeus behaves," said Kurt Campbell, a military analyst who has advised Democratic presidential candidates. "Remember, Petraeus' future now lies much more with what happens with Clinton and Obama. He's going to go all out to try to appear he's not alienating Democratic friends."

The third major presidential candidate, Republican Sen. John McCain, also serves on a committee that Petraeus will face.

In a blizzard of appearances last year, the cerebral Petraeus enjoyed a shower of public approval as he worked to quell calls for rapid troop reductions and cement the Bush administration's war strategy.

Aides acknowledged that this time, their commander is stepping into an even fiercer political storm than during his first report. As they did in September, Petraeus' aides have been running the general through exercises called "murder boards" to come up with the toughest questions that Congress might throw at him.

And Petraeus is experienced in making his case.

Over the past year he has assiduously courted other military officers, academics and congressional delegations, proving remarkably successful at converting skeptics.

But in Washington during a campaign season, the partisan lines for and against the war have hardened. Some analysts sympathetic to Petraeus believe that by scaling back his ambitions - acknowledging that Iraq is unlikely to become a "Jeffersonian democracy" in the next decade, for instance - Petraeus might convince Democratic contenders that achievable goals warrant a continuing presence.

"The right near-to-midterm objective is an end to widespread violence - get a nationwide cease-fire," said Stephen Biddle, a scholar at the Council for Foreign Relations who has advised Petraeus' staff. "That is plausible. That is achievable. ... And it sounds a lot more realistic to people than the kinds of things the president has said."

Not all of the questioning from the presidential candidates is expected to be hostile. McCain, the senior Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, will align himself with Petraeus' strategy to keep troop levels at 140,000 through the summer, aides said.

"He believes, like the theater commander does, that to draw down beyond that at this point would be dangerous and threaten some of the gains that we made," said McCain campaign strategist Mark Salter.

But it is the potential clash with Democrats that will be watched most closely by political and military Washington.

At the Pentagon, a contingent of senior officers, including members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have long pushed for a faster drawdown of forces to relieve stress on the Army and to meet needs elsewhere, particularly in Afghanistan.

Some senior officers privately have objected to Petraeus' direct access to President Bush, noting that under law it is the chairman of the Joint Chiefs who serves as the primary military adviser to the president.

Peter Spiegel and Julian E. Barnes write for the Los Angeles Times.

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