Obama not bowing to top brass, yet
By Gareth Porter
WASHINGTON - United States Central Command chief General 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 US
combat troops from Iraq within 18 months. This was at an Oval Office meeting on
But Obama informed Gates, Petraeus and Joint Chiefs chairman Admiral 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's 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 General Ray
Odierno, now the top commander in Iraq, have already begun pressuring Obama to
change his withdrawal policy.
A network of senior military officers is also reportedly 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 hoped to sell Obama on a plan they formulated in
the final months of the Bush administration that aimed at getting around a key
provision of the US-Iraqi withdrawal agreement by re-categorizing large numbers
of combat troops as support troops. That subterfuge was added by the United
States last November, ostensibly allowing Obama to deliver on his campaign
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 December 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 convince Obama to amend his decision came on January 29 when
the New York Times published an interview with Odierno, ostensibly based on the
premise that Obama indicated 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 January 21 meeting when retired Army
General Jack Keane, one of the authors of the Bush troop "surge" policy and a
close political ally and mentor of Petraeus, appeared on the Lehrer News Hour
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 is apparently 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 January 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 US withdrawal, according to a military source familiar with the
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 US 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 anti-war
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 to keep as many US troops in Iraq as possible. It
was Keane who got former vice president Dick Cheney to push for Petraeus as top
commander in Iraq in late 2006 when the existing commander, General 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 Bush to override the concerns of the Joint Chiefs of Staff
about the stress of prolonged US occupation of Iraq on the US 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
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 US Army and Marine Corps and the situation in Afghanistan
as more important than Petraeus' obvious interest in maximizing US troop
strength in Iraq, according to Time magazine's Joe Klein.
But judging from Petraeus' shock at Obama's January 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.
Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specializing
in US national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book,
Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam, was
published in 2006.