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Hmmm, Maybe Petraeus Wasn’t So Hot on Going to Syria

On Friday, I flagged an ABC story reporting that Gen. David Petraeus had requested permission to talk with the Syrian government as part of his new job as head of Central Command, only to be shot down by the Bush administration. I speculated that it might be another example of congruence with Sen. Barack Obama’s foreign-policy instincts. But a knowledgable source tells me ABC didn’t have it quite right.

According to this source, who requested anonymity, Petraeus had wanted to go to Syria while still commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, to discuss what could be done cooperatively to stanch the flow of foreign fighters entering Iraq from the Syrian border. He sent his request up the chain of command — meaning it would have gone first to the office of Gen. Martin Dempsey or Adm. Fox Fallon at Central Command, depending on when the request was made, which I don’t know, and then to Defense Sec. Robert Gates — and asked when an appropriate time to go to Syria might be.

The answer he got was “Not Yet,” not “No.” And it remains as a standing request, so Petraeus is still waiting to hear.

My source added that whoever leaked the story to ABC probably wasn’t familiar with Petraeus’ thinking, as the general doesn’t intend to go to Damascus for his first trip as Central Command chief.

What’s this all mean? The context is important for its own sake, to be sure. It’s reassuring to know that the Bush administration didn’t veto the trip outright, though it’s unclear whether “Not Yet” is just an easier way, bureaucratically, of saying “No.”

But it doesn’t change the basic overview that it’s preferable to talk to one’s adversaries, to see if there’s a productive way forward, notwithstanding the seemingly overblown claim in the ABC story that Petraeus wanted to cleave Syria from the Iranian sphere of influence.

I’ll leave it to readers to judge whether that overview is closer to Obama’s foreign policy or Sen. John McCain’s.

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