Playing the Petraeus Card

It looks like I’m the only one who’s underwhelmed by the Petraeus appointment to CENTCOM commander, but what the heck. In for a penny, in for pound. So here’s another thorny question that I’ve yet to see directly addressed. (Hampton, make sure you’ve had your morning cup of Joe before reading any further.)

I mentioned that by using his direct lines of communication with the Oval Office to leapfrog Adm. Fallon, Petraeus had already been serving as de facto CENTCOM commander. But in thinking about it, the leapfrog actually went much further than that, because President Bush made it clear that he would follow Petraeus’ lead in Iraq, and not the other way around.

Now, if you’re a cynic like me, you might think that was a political ploy to use the persuasive authority of the Iraq theater commander to implement military tactics in Baghdad that serve Bush’s political purposes in Washington. (All the better if they’ve been responsible for the improved security situation, but the causal connection remains disputable, and subject to developments on the ground.) But if you’re not, it means that Petraeus was exercising a command that far exceeded the bailiwick of MNF-I or CENTCOM, for that matter. Petraeus was calling the shots for the Commander-in-Chief, and not the other way around.

Of course, so long as Petraeus’ strategic vision is consistent with President Bush’s political agenda, there’s little reason to believe the relationship will suffer from his assumption of CENTCOM duties. But what happens when Petreaus decides that Bush’s political line jeopardizes our regional strategic position? Well, it turns out we have a recent example of what happens to a CENTCOM commander who isn’t in lockstep with the Bush administration’s Middle East policy. It’s called early retirement.

Now call me cynical, call me cranky, call me contrarian (just, please, don’t call me punctilious). But to my eyes this looks like the latest installment of the Bush administration’s politicization of the officer corps, and I suspect that anyone who expects Petraeus to suddenly start thinking differently about the big regional picture than he did about the Iraq theater is in for a disappointment. Petraeus will ask Bush for what Bush wants to give him, and Bush will then give it to him under the pretense that it’s what his military commander asked for. And if Petraeus upsets the apple cart between now and January 20, 2009, he’ll be joining Fox Fallon on the motivational speaking tour.

The problem isn’t that the President calls the shots in time of war. That’s how it should be. The problem is that the Petraeus-Bush relationship is a closed feedback loop, hermetically impervious to disproof and driven by a political agenda whose ideological foundation Bush has pragmatically sidelined but never explicitly renounced. And it’s about to go regional.

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