Petraeus, Like Obama, Wanted Talks With Syria

Created: October 31, 2008 10:01 | Last updated: July 31, 2020 00:00

Remember how I wrote earlier this month that Gen. David Petraeus’ public statements appeared to implicitly back Sen. Barack Obama’s foreign policy? Here’s another example.

According to ABC, the incoming Centcom commander — who takes over at 10 a.m. today, as a matter of fact — wanted to make a visit to the Syrian government. Of course, the Bush administration considers Bashar al-Assad a junior-varsity member of the Axis of Evil. I don’t think we’ve had ambassadorial-level relations since 2005, when Bush recalled Amb. Margaret Scobey to protest Syria’s assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

Yet Petraeus doesn’t think it’s crazy to discuss one’s problems with foreign leaders.

Petraeus proposed visiting Syria shortly after taking over as the top U.S. commander for the Middle East.

The idea was swiftly rejected by Bush administration officials at the White House, State Department and the Pentagon.

According to ABC, Petraeus believes the Syrians can be wooed away from the Iranian sphere of influence, which would give Washington far more leverage in dealing with Iran.

Instead, the Bush administration chose to keep relations frosty and to assassinate an al-Qaeda in Iraq leader across the border in Syria  –  an act that the Syrians understandably find to be an affront. The administration coupled this with a “warning” to the Syrians about “clean[ing] up the global threat that is in your back yard,” in the words of one senior official.

Now, it may be that killing Abu Ghadiya was the right thing to do. If so, the more productive course might have been for Petraeus, or another U.S. emissary, to establish some path of outreach to smooth over rough U.S.-Syrian patches like this one.

The leak of this ABC story is important, too. This is just an inference, but the fact that such a move would become public on the eve of the election seems like a signal from Petraeus to the likely next commander-in-chief that the two of them can do business.