Throughout Sen. John McCain’s presidential campaign, the Republican nominee has wrapped himself in the mantle of U.S. Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, proclaiming himself the leading advocate of the former commanding general in Iraq who devised last year’s controversial troop surge. Yet during a talk Wednesday about Iraq at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington policy organization, Petraeus repeatedly made statements that bolstered the foreign-policy proposals of Sen. Barack Obama, McCain’s Democratic rival, or cut against McCain’s own lines.
Petraeus relinquished command in Iraq last month. He assumes responsibility for U.S. Central Command later this month, putting him in charge of U.S. forces in the Middle East and South Asia.
As a serving military officer, Petraeus attempted to avoid any explicit political discussion. “I’m not walking into minefields now,” Petraeus said, to laughter, when asked a question that referred to Tuesday night’s presidential debate. In fact, the general averred that he didn’t watch the debate.
Yet Petraeus, whether intentionally or not, often waded into areas of dispute between Obama and McCain involving Afghanistan, negotiating with adversaries and other recent campaign controversies. Each time, the general either lent tacit support to Obama or denied tacit support to McCain.
Unbidden, Petraeus discussed whether his strategy in Iraq — protecting the population while cleaving apart the insurgency through reconciliation efforts to crush the remaining hard-core enemies — could also work in Afghanistan. The question has particular salience as Petraeus takes over U.S. Central Command, which will put him at the helm of all U.S. troops in the Middle East and South Asia, thereby giving him a large role in the Afghanistan war.
“Some of the concepts used in Iraq are transplantable [to Afghanistan] while others perhaps are not,” he said. “Every situation is unique.”
Petraeus pointed to efforts by Hamid Karzai’s government to negotiate a deal with the Taliban that would potentially bring some Taliban members back to power, saying that if they are “willing to reconcile,” it would be “a positive step.”
In saying that, Petraeus implicitly allied with U.S. Army Gen. David McKiernan, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan. Last week, McKiernan rejected the idea of replicating the blend of counterinsurgency strategy employed in Iraq. “The word that I don’t use in Afghanistan is the word ‘surge,’” McKiernan said, opting against recruiting Pashtun tribal fighters to supplement Afghan security forces against Al Qaeda and the Taliban. “There are countless other differences between Iraq and Afghanistan,” he added.
McCain, however, has argued that the Afghanistan war is ripe for a direct replication of Petraeus’ Iraq strategy of population-centric counterinsurgency. “Sen. Obama calls for more troops,” McCain said in the Sept. 26 debate, “but what he doesn’t understand, it’s got to be a new strategy, the same strategy that he condemned in Iraq. It’s going to have to be employed in Afghanistan.”
McCain qualified that statement in Tuesday’s debate, but clung to it while discussing Afghanistan and Pakistan. “Gen. Petraeus had a strategy,” McCain said, “the same strategy — very, very different, because of the conditions and the situation — but the same fundamental strategy that succeeded in Iraq. And that is to get the support of the people.”
Petraeus also came out unambiguously in his talk at Heritage for opening communications with America’s adversaries, a position McCain is attacking Obama for endorsing. Citing his Iraq experience, Petraeus said, “You have to talk to enemies.” He added that it was necessary to have a particular goal for discussion and to perform advance work to understand the motivations of his interlocutors.
All that was the subject of one of the most contentious tussles between McCain and Obama in the first presidential debate, with Obama contending that his intent to negotiate with foreign adversaries without “precondition” did not mean that he would neglect diplomatic “preparation.”
McCain, apparently perceiving an opportunity for attack, Tuesday again used Obama’s comments to attack his judgment. “Sen. Obama, without precondition, wants to sit down and negotiate with them, without preconditions,” McCain said, referring to Iran.
Yet Petraeus emphasized throughout his lecture that reaching out to insurgent groups — some “with our blood on their hands,” he said — was necessary to the ultimate goal of turning them against irreconcilable enemies like Al Qaeda in Iraq.
Petraeus favorably cited the example of one of his British deputies, who in a previous assignment had to negotiate with Martin McGuiness of the Irish Republican Army, responsible for killing some of the British commander’s troops. The British officer, Petraeus said, occasionally wanted to “reach across the table” and choke his former adversary but understood that such negotiations were key to ending a war.
Petraeus reflected at length on the need to “take away and hold the strongholds and safe havens” possessed by Al Qaeda in Iraq during 2007 and 2008, saying that without doing so, the rest of the counterinsurgency strategy “won’t work.” While he did not initially make reference to Al Qaeda’s much greater presence in the Federal Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan, it was hard not to hear the overtones of the current argument over Pakistan policy between Obama and McCain.
McCain has attacked Obama for explicitly stating conditions under which he would order U.S. military action against the senior leadership of Al Qaeda in Pakistan, deriding that by saying Obama is “going to attack Pakistan,” while advocating that the Pakistanis perform the task instead of U.S. troops.
Barbara Starr of CNN attempted to draw Petraeus out further, asking him about the importance of capturing or killing Osama bin Laden, believed to be in the tribal areas of Pakistan. Petraeus did not tip his hand on advocating anything, saying merely, “clearly, Osama bin Laden remains very important, if for no other reason than sheer symbolic importance,” and warning that “decapitating” Al Qaeda would not end the threat from a jihadist entity that he compared to a “syndicate.”
He did, however, say that he was encouraged by what he called signs that the Pakistanis “increasingly see an existential threat to their country being in FATA,” referring to the tribal areas — something that might gel with McCain’s stated preference.
Naturally, since Petraeus centered his hour-plus talk on progress in Iraq, McCain could fairly claim to be closer to the general than Obama — who opposed the surge — on the subject. But, particularly given the Republican-friendly audience, it was remarkable as well what Petraeus did not say.
Unlike his three recent rounds of congressional testimony, Petraeus did not discuss withdrawal from Iraq. He did not issue warnings that withdrawal — which Obama and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki support, while McCain instead calls for “victory” — would lead to a downward spiral of violence.
While the general warned that there were several “potential storm clouds” threatening to undermine progress, he said that Iraq was on a more stable footing since his last appearance on Capitol Hill in April. He never said terms like “victory” or “success” that McCain uses, and which the GOP nominee frequently chides Obama for avoiding.
The Heritage Foundation crowd clearly loved hearing from Petraeus. The think tank’s executive vice president, Philip Truluck, referred to Petraeus’ “history-making service in Iraq” before the audience greeted the general with the first of two prolonged standing ovations. A questioner proclaimed himself “honored and proud to be in the same room with you.”
Petraeus has repeatedly averred that he has no interest in running for president. “I think that Gen. Sherman had it right,” he told Fox News’s Chris Wallace in December, when asked if he’d run, referring to Sherman’s famous declaration that if nominated he would not run, and if elected, he would not serve.
But given McCain’s recent lagging poll numbers, perhaps many at Heritage hope Petraeus will change his mind before 2012.
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