In its own, inimitable, round-about style, The New York Times speculates that General David Petraeus, the Commander of U.S. military forces in the Middle East, might be a contender for the Republican Presidential ticket in 2012.
The Times arrives at that conclusion--in part--because General Petraeus, head of U.S. Central Command, is reportedly being frozen out of strategy discussions by the Obama Administration. With the President (supposedly) ignoring Petraeus’s advice—and future promotions unlikely—the paper suggests that Petraeus might be open to a political career in three years.
To some degree, that scenario makes sense. We opined months ago that General Petraeus’s military career will end at CENTCOM, despite his dazzling success in Iraq and his reputation as an expert in counter-insurgency warfare.
But that means little to the current Commander-in-Chief and his fellow Democrats in Congress. By making the surge work—and stabilizing Iraq—Petraeus earned the lasting enmity of the Democratic Party. They want no part of a general who derailed their plans to “cut and run” in Iraq, and would oppose administration efforts to try a similar approach in Afghanistan.
On the other hand, Petraeus is viewed as a potential superstar in GOP circles. With a dearth of “name” candidates to lead the Republican ticket in 2012 (other than Sarah Palin and Mitt Romney), many in the GOP would gladly support a Petraeus candidacy, despite his lack of political experience and organization.
Still, there are a number of hurdles the general must overcome in mounting a successful run for office. For starters, he would have to express a genuine interest in the presidency, something he has studiously avoided. Various media reports from 2007 suggested the General Petraeus had voiced an interest in running for the White House, but those accounts were widely dismissed. Indeed, many of the "sources" for those claims were Iraqi and U.S. officials who barely knew the general, and were clearly outside his inner circle.
Officers who have served with Petraeus--past and present--say he has no interest in a political career. Retired Army Colonel Peter Mansoor, who served as the general's executive officer when he commanded allied troops in Iraq, told the Times that Petraeus has "never hinted" that he would seek a political career after the military.
In terms of political affiliation, General Petraeus is described as a Republican, although he hasn't voted since at least 2003, in an effort to maintain impartiality. Interestingly, Petraeus and his wife own property in New Hampshire, that critical, early primary state. But until he retires from active duty, the general will spend most of his time at CENTCOM Headquarters in Tampa, with frequent trips to Washington and the Middle East.
Still, a political run by Petraeus cannot be completely ruled out. If he is being squeezed out of the Afghanistan debate--as the Times suggests--the general would probably retire after his current stint at CENTCOM. Some would say that is all-but-inevitable, given the treatment he's receiving from the current administration.
If the White House moves away from the counter-insurgency strategy favored by Petraeus and the U.S. Commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, the CENTCOM leader might request early retirement. On the other hand, it is also easy to envision Petraeus hanging in until the end of his term, out of loyalty to his troops. Under that scenario, General Petraeus wouldn't leave CENTCOM until the fall of 2011, just months before the first presidential primary. If he was extended for a fourth year--unlikely, but not an impossibility---Petraeus would become an even less likely candidate.
Needless to say, there are plenty of Republicans who would willingly build a campaign for Dave Petraeus and he's certainly sharp enough to learn the political game. But entering politics at the presidential level is a risky proposition--just ask the most recent military leader who jumped into the ring, General Wesley Clark. He was supposed to be the Democrat who could end the GOP's monopoly on the national security issue, but Clark was gone before Super Tuesday.
And, unlike General Petraeus, Wesley Clark genuinely wanted to be president. So far, there's no evidence that the CENTCOM commander has that fire in his belly. Republicans can only hope that changes between now and 2012--or 2016.
ADDENDUM: Petraeus has also been mentioned as a possible vice-presidential nominee, but it's hard to envision a retired four-star taking a backseat to a career politician. As a group, they remember the experience of Curtis LeMay with George Wallace in 1968.