If Gen. David Petraeus is feeling the heat as he readies his momentous Iraq war report to Congress, it is hard to tell by the cool confidence with which he discusses the toughest mission of his career.
Rarely in recent history have the words of one general loomed so large in determining the direction of a war.
Two things in particular give his coming September assessment and testimony to Congress great weight: He is viewed as the master of counterinsurgency strategy, having written just last year the military’s manual on how it should be done. And secondly, President Bush has repeatedly said he would count on the judgment of his top Iraq commander.
“I will rely on General Petraeus to give me his recommendations for the appropriate troop levels in Iraq,” Bush said last month when pressed on the timing of when Americans might start coming home — five years into the war and 18 months before he leaves the White House.
“I’m going to wait to see what David has to say. I’m not going to pre-judge what he may say. I trust David Petraeus’ judgment,” the president added.
Petraeus is keeping his counsel close, five weeks before he heads to Capitol Hill to pass judgment on the Iraq war strategy — with the direction of the conflict hanging in the balance.
It’s not easy to unnerve a guy who was shot in the chest in a training accident at Fort Campbell, Ky., earlier in his career, and who has spent a combined three years in Iraq in three different tours of duty. He led the 101st Airborne Division, with 17,000 soldiers, in the initial U.S. invasion in March 2003.
In February he became the top U.S. commander in Iraq, replacing Gen. George Casey.
In an Associated Press interview in late July in his office at the U.S. Embassy, Petraeus betrayed no sign of anxiety, except perhaps a hint of worry that he might tip his hand too early, thus opening himself to challenge from critics before he has fully armed himself with credible arguments for why the buildup is working.
He believes it is working
Clearly, he believes it is working. But he is not ready to say that too expansively. He speaks hopefully, in an understated way, of making more security gains this year with the U.S. troop buildup.
Nor is he willing to go far in discussing the question many in Washington are asking: When can a drawdown of U.S. troops begin?
“We haven’t hard-and-fast determined when to do that just yet,” he says.
Petraeus, a West Point graduate with 33 years in uniform, is highly regarded by his peers and by many former generals.
Barry McCaffrey, a retired Army four-star, calls him “brilliant.” Gen. Peter Pace, the soon-to-retire chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told AP during a July trip to Iraq that two key qualities make Petraeus special: “First, absolute integrity ... and second, (he’s) smart as a whip.”
Petraeus, 54, is a polished communicator, and it’s clear that he sees that as an important asset in wartime. Some critics have said he overstated the rate of progress by Iraqi security forces during his tenure as leader of that effort in 2004-05.
“But if so, who (among commanders) has not” been overly optimistic, said Stephen Biddle, a military expert at the Council on Foreign Relations who was part of a team that was in Baghdad last spring to advise on developing a new war strategy.
His every word will be scrutinized when he delivers his assessment in mid-September. He will appear for testimony with Ambassador Ryan Crocker, his diplomatic counterpart in Baghdad. They are expected to explain the progress and problems with the counterinsurgency strategy that Petraeus began to implement when he arrived in February — both security and political.
And they are expected to present their recommendations on how to proceed beyond September, in the face of efforts by many in the Democratic-controlled Congress to change direction again in Iraq and begin bringing the troops home, starting as soon as this fall.
Petraeus is not predicting, at least publicly, how much longer it will take for his strategy to turn the tide. Nor is he sharing his view on how much longer the Iraqi government should be given to make moves toward political reconciliation among Iraq’s ethno-sectarian rivals that will ultimately decide the outcome.
During the AP interview, his tone was flat, almost a monotone. He chose his words carefully. Only when he got to the subject of the sacrifices made in this war by soldiers and their families did he get animated.
His voice rose and he gestured with his hands as he spoke of the obligation he feels to deal frankly with Iraqi leaders when he sees their actions undercutting in important ways the efforts of U.S. forces.
“This is too important to always turn the other cheek, shall we say. I think sometimes you have to have straightforward conversations,” he says, adding: “I think I owe that to 3,600 families in the United States and the 160,000 coalition forces who are soldiering their hearts out. I take that responsibility very, very seriously.”
His reference to 3,600 is the approximate number of U.S. war deaths.
“I will not shrink from showing the emotion that I feel about that, on occasion, if I think that will help the effectiveness of the presentation, shall we say,” he said.