Let's not mince words: David Petraeus may be the only thing standing between George W. Bush and total failure in Iraq. And it's apparent that most of the Washington power elite—as well as the rest of the country—understands that. All of which helps to explain the extraordinary spectacle on Capitol Hill on Monday, when Gen. Petraeus, the commander of multinational forces in Iraq, delivered a mostly positive report on Bush's "surge" in Iraq, as anguished antiwar protesters shouted and screamed imprecations from the back of the packed hearing room before being led out by security guards. (Among those arrested: Cindy Sheehan, who lost her son in Iraq and later became a leading activist against the war.)
But it is not so much Petraeus the general that Bush is depending on right now, it is Petraeus the politician. Most of the media coverage of the 54-year-old four-star officer has focused on his intellectual brilliance (top 5 percent of his class at West Point; Princeton Ph.D., counterinsurgency expert). What Bush needs out of Petraeus now, however, is his lobbying acumen, namely his ability to persuade the Democrat-controlled Congress—in particular, the growing number of Republican war doubters there—to give him the time he says he needs to rescue some measure of stability out of the chaos of Iraq.
Not surprisingly, Petraeus performed smoothly on the political front on Monday. In testimony he insisted was his own frank assessment and not cleared beforehand with the White House (however, it was briefed "up the chain of command," National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe told NEWSWEEK), Petraeus delivered an early Christmas present to legislators who are desperate to show their constituents that they are working toward withdrawal. Petraeus said he wants to bring home a U.S. Army combat brigade in December, and that by July 2008 he hoped to remove five more combat brigades and two Marine battalions, reducing the U.S. presence from about 168,000 now to "pre-surge levels" of about 130,000 troops.
But it's questionable whether even the smoothest-talking salesman could appease public opinion—or Petraeus's Pentagon detractors—at this point. NEWSWEEK has learned that a separate internal report being prepared by a Pentagon working group will "differ substantially" from Petraeus's recommendations, according to an official who is privy to the ongoing discussions but would speak about them only on condition of anonymity. An early version of the report, which is currently being drafted and is expected to be completed by the beginning of next year, will "recommend a very rapid reduction in American forces: as much as two-thirds of the existing force very quickly, while keeping the remainder there." The strategy will involve unwinding the still large U.S. presence in big forward operation bases and putting smaller teams in outposts. "There is interest at senior levels [of the Pentagon] in getting alternative views" to Petraeus, the official said. Among others, Centcom commander Admiral William Fallon is known to want to draw down faster than Petraeus.
Petraeus's draw-down recommendations have outraged critics of the war who accuse him of merely doing Bush's bidding and adjusting his recommendations to the politics of the Hill. ("General Betray Us," the leftwing group MoveOn.org called him in a series of newspaper ads on Monday.) Even some supporters of the surge effort wonder whether Petraeus isn't thinking as much about selling the war as winning it. "It depends on how this recommendation is framed," said Dan Senor, a former top official with the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq who is now working part-time as an adviser to GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney. "If it's framed as a recommendation out of a position of strength, that things are going well and therefore we can afford to reduce our troop levels, that's fine. If, however, it is interpreted as throwing a bone to Congress, in order to placate Congress at expense of our operational capacity, then that's not good."
John Arquilla, an intelligence and counterinsurgency expert at the Naval Postgraduate School, is even harsher in his assessment of Petraeus. "I think Colin Powell used dodgy information to get us into the war, and Petraeus is using dodgy information to keep us there," he said. "His political talking points are all very clear: the continued references he made to the danger of Al Qaeda in Iraq, for example, even though it represents only somewhere between 2 and 5 percent of the total insurgency. The continued references to Iran, when in fact the Iranians have had a lot to do with stability in the Shiite portion of the country. And it's not at all clear why things are a little better now. Is it because there are more troops, or is it because we're negotiating with the insurgents and have moved to small operating outposts? On any given day we don't have more than 20,000 troops operating. The glacial pace of reductions beggars the imagination."
So a great deal will depend on Petraeus's ability to sell his ideas on the Hill during exhaustive testimony this week. (After a six-hour session before a joint session of the House Armed Services Committee and Foreign Relations Committee on Monday, he and U.S. ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker are scheduled to face the Senate Armed Services Committee and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday.) On that score, as much as for his generalship, Bush could not have picked a better man than Petraeus. According to a former senior civilian official in the Coalition Provisional Authority, Petraeus is a "total performer." This reporter observed Petraeus's political skills up close while flying with him above the Iraqi city of Mosul in a Blackhawk helicopter in early 2004. Speaking through headphones over the loud whirring of the chopper engines, Petraeus pointed out to then-Iraq administrator L. Paul Bremer III how many satellite dishes had popped up on Iraqi homes during the general's tenure as commander of the 101st Airborne Division. Citing the dishes as a sign of progress, he proposed that Bremer go national with Petraeus's "Mosul's most wanted" TV show, launched to get locals to call in with insurgent tips. And Petraeus called in a large press gaggle to observe training exercises at his local Iraqi military training academy. Later, back in Baghdad, Bremer shook his head and laughed indulgently. "He loves headlines," Bremer said. "But he's very good."
Bush hasn't officially signed off on Petraeus's recommendations. "You'll hear from the president by the end of the week," says the NSC's Johndroe. But Bush is almost certain to endorse his general's campaign on the front lines of the Washington debate. Petraeus knows that whatever hopes he still has for "success" in Iraq—a loosely defined term that even White House officials now privately acknowledge might just mean avoiding a bloodbath and the breakup of the country—may now depend on the political will here at home as much as on the battlefield in Iraq.