Petraeus 'leaked' Iraq pullout plans
By Gareth Porter
WASHINGTON - The political maneuvering between United States President Barack
Obama and his top field commanders over withdrawal from Iraq has taken a sudden
new turn with the leak by Central Command chief General David Petraeus - and a
firm denial by a White House official - of an account of the January 21 White
House meeting suggesting that Obama had requested three different combat troop
withdrawal plans with their respective associated risks, including one of 23
The Petraeus account, reported by McClatchy newspapers on February 5 and then
by the Associated Press the following day,
appears to indicate that Obama is moving away from the 16-month plan he had
vowed during the campaign to implement if elected. But on closer examination,
it doesn't necessarily refer to any action by Obama or to anything that
happened at the January 21 meeting.
The real story of the leak by Petraeus is that the most powerful figure in the
US military has tried to shape the media coverage of Obama and combat troop
withdrawal from Iraq to advance his policy agenda - and, very likely, his
personal political interests as well.
This writer became aware of Petraeus' effort to influence the coverage of
Obama's unfolding policy on troop withdrawal when a military source close to
the general, who insisted on anonymity, offered the Petraeus account on
February 4. The military officer was responding to an Inter Press Service story
published two days earlier (Please see,
Obama not bowing to top brass, yet, February 4, 2009.)
The story reported that Obama had rejected Petraeus' argument against a
16-month withdrawal option at the meeting and asked for a withdrawal plan
within that timeframe, and that Petraeus had been unhappy with the outcome of
It also reported that General Ray Odierno, the top US commander in Iraq, and
retired army general Jack Keane, a close ally of Petraeus, had both made public
statements indicating a determination to get Obama to abandon the 16-month
The officer told IPS that, contrary to the story, Petraeus had been "very
pleased" with the direction of the discussions. He said that there had been no
decision by Obama at the meeting and no indication that Obama had a preference
for one option over another.
The military source provided the following carefully worded statement: "We were
specifically asked to provide projections, assumptions and risks for the
accomplishment of objectives associated with 16-, 19- and 23-month drawdown
options." That was exactly the sentence published by McClatchy the following
day, except that "specifically" was left out.
The source also said Petraeus, Odierno and ambassador Ryan Crocker had already
reached a "unified assessment" on the three drawdown options and had forwarded
them to the chain of command.
But a White House official told IPS on Monday that the Petraeus account was
untrue. "The assessments of the three drawdown dates were not requested by the
president," said the official, who insisted on not being identified because he
had not been authorized to comment on the matter. "He never said, 'Give me
three drawdown plans'."
McClatchy's Nancy Youssef reported a similar account from aides to Obama.
"Obama told his advisors shortly after taking office that he remained committed
to the 16-month timeframe," Youssef wrote, "but asked them to present him with
the pros and cons of that and other options, without specifying dates."
That suggests that the only specific plan for which Obama requested an
assessment of risks was the 16-month plan, but that he agreed to look at other
plans as well.
The sentence given to this writer as well as to McClatchy bore one obvious clue
that the request for the assessments of three drawdown plans did not come from
Obama: the sentence used the passive voice. It also failed to explicitly state
that the request in question was made during the meeting with Obama.
Petraeus did not respond to a request through the intermediary to say who
requested the studies and whether they had been proposed by the military
commanders themselves. McClatchy's Youssef also noted that it is "unclear who
came up with the idea ..." of the 19- and 23-month withdrawal plans.
By implying that Obama had requested the three plans without saying so
explicitly, the sentence leaked by Petraeus seems to have been calculated to
create a misleading story.
One of Petraeus' objectives appears to have been to counter any perception that
he is seeking to undermine Obama on Iraq policy. Petraeus wishes to remain out
of the spotlight in regard to any conflict regarding withdrawal over the Iraq
issue. "He has been very careful to keep a very low profile," said the military
officer close to Petraeus, "because this is a new administration."
But the Petraeus leak also serves to promote the idea that Obama is moving away
from his campaign pledge on a 16-month combat troop withdrawal, which has
already been the dominant theme in news media coverage of the issue. That idea
would also justify continued sniping by military officers at Obama's 16-month
plan as too risky.
In a new book, The Gamble, to be published on Tuesday, Washington Post
reporter Tom Ricks confirms an earlier report that in his initial encounter
with Petraeus in Baghdad last July, Obama had made no effort to hide his sharp
disagreement with the general's views. Obama interrupted a lecture by Petraeus,
according to Ricks, and made it clear that, as president, he would need to take
a broader strategic view of the issue than that of the commander in Iraq.
Ricks, who interviewed Petraeus about the meeting, writes that Obama's remarks
"likely insulted Petraeus, who justly prides himself on his ability to do just
that ... " That strongly implies that Petraeus expressed some irritation at
Obama over the incident to Ricks.
On top of the interest of Petraeus and other senior officers in keeping US
troops in Iraq for as long as possible, Petraeus has personal political
interests at stake in the struggle over Iraq policy. He has been widely
regarded as a possible Republican presidential candidate in 2012.
Petraeus evidently believed the White House was promoting a story that made him
look like the loser at the January 21 meeting. "I imagine the White House is
not too happy that this information is out there," said the military source,
referring to the Petraeus account he had provided to IPS.
Obama is obviously treading warily in handling Petraeus. His concern about
Petraeus' political ambitions may have been a factor in the decision to bring
four-star Marine Corps General James Jones in as his national security adviser.
"I've been told by a couple of people that one of the reasons for Jones being
chosen was to have him there as a four-star to counter Petraeus," said one
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.