Perhaps this was inevitable. Gareth Porter of the Inter Press Service is reporting that President Obama and his CENTCOM Commander, General David Petraeus, are on a collision course over Iraq. Mr. Porter's recent scoop was reprinted by the World Tribune:
CENTCOM commander Gen. David Petraeus, supported by Defence 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'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 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 mobilising 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."
You can almost hear the White House source chuckle in recounting their version of events. It sounds vaguely reminiscent of Mr. Obama's "I won" comment, during a meeting with Congressional Republicans last week. To the victor goes the spoils; as the new decider-in-chief, President Obama gets to chart our policy in Iraq (and other global hotspots).
But dismissing the advice of senior generals is usually a bad idea, as Mr. Obama will eventually discover. While some dispute his version of events, if Gareth Porter is correct, then President Obama is facing a posssible revolt among his senior military advisers. Mobilizing public support through the media is not something that flag officers particularly enjoy, given their inherent distrust of the press. Their willingness to consider that option suggests a growing rift between the Commander-in-Chief and his senior military advisers.
More disturbingly, Mr. Obama's preferred withdrawal plan flies in the face of current realities in the Middle East. As Bret Stephens notes in today's WSJ, Iraq is becoming a U.S. bulwark in the Middle East. The gains achieved by the troop surge are holding, and Iraqi forces are assuming a lead role in securing the country. Last weekend's election was a stunning success, and a model for the Arab word.
Still, the situation in Iraq is not irreversible, one reason that Mr. Gates, General Petraeus and General Odierno favor an extended American draw down. Mr. Stephens observes that not all American "pillars" in the Middle East have met the test of time. In some cases, the bulwark of yesteryear (think Iran) is today's despotic regime that now threatens regional security. Other long-standing American allies, including Pakistan and Turkey) face an uncertain future, at best.
In other words, the U.S. needs all the stable, friendly regimes it can find in the Middle East. But Mr. Obama seems more intent on placating his supporters on the liberal fringe, who've been clamoring for an American pullout since 2003. The President seems willing to risk progress paid for in blood and treasure to full fill a campaign promise--with less regard for what happens after we leave.
If this sounds familiar, it should. Just days into his presidency, Mr. Obama signed an executive order to shut down the terrorist prison at Guantanamo Bay by next year. Where those suspects will be incarcerated (or face justice) has not been determined. Maybe the administration should change its mantra from "Change We Can Believe In," to "Don't Sweat the Details."
ADDENDUM: We should also note that the Obama-Petraeus collision has a political component. General Petraeus's successful strategy in Iraq caused a fair amount of consternation for Obama and his fellow Democrats. Kicking and screaming, they had to finally admit that the troop surge worked, and was eminently preferable to their "cut and run" approach. With the Democrats now in the White House, they can finally tell General Petraeus to "shut up and color," exacting a measure of revenge for upsetting their original Iraq "strategy."
The friction in the Oval Office is also a prelude to 2012. In some GOP circles, Petraeus is already being mentioned as a potential Senate or Vice-Presidential candidate in four years. By forcing a showdown over Iraq, Obama can tarnish the general's reputation, force him to resign, or even engineer a dismissal. Any of those scenarios would damage the general politically, a calculation that isn't lost on the White House.
You read it here first: The brilliant military career of General David Petraeus will end at CENTCOM.