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Biden v. Petraeus. BIDEN WINS!!!That, in a nutshell, is the White House narrative of President Barack Obama’s decision to withdraw 10,000 U.S. troops this year and 23,000 more by next September.
Gen. David Petraeus, outgoing commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, wanted a slower drawdown. Vice President Joe Biden wanted a quicker one. Obama opted for something in the middle, but generally sided with Biden.
This narrative has dominated news coverage of the decision ever since the plan leaked before Obama’s speech last night. Petraeus might understandably feel slighted.
The Obama political team clearly has motive to push the Biden-over-Petraeus story, as National Journal‘s Ron Fournier points out:
“White House operatives went to great lengths to show Obama shifting focus from wars abroad to domestic issues at home. Their public-relations plan called for, among other things, leaking word that Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, recommended a more limited withdrawal.
“The usually leak-averse White House also made sure reporters were told that both defence Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, two hawks in the Obama cabinet, had accepted Obama’s decision—but only reluctantly.
“The message as framed by the Obama political team: He knows it’s the economy, stupid; he’ll focus on it like a laser beam, even if it means ‘defying’ his commanders and Cabinet.”
General Petraeus also has good reason to leak the story to the media, as Fournier’s National Journal colleague Mark Ambinder notes:
“While the relationship between Obama and Petraeus is solid, there is friction between their staffs. Petraeus’s planning colonels and captains have little regard for Obama’s lieutenants on the National Security Council, and it is within their interests to portray Petraeus’s disappointment as greater than it may be.”
Petraeus’ staff might easily have predicted that that story would get the defence hawks screeching, as indeed it has. “It has been widely known that General Petraeus objected to this proposal,” Senator John McCain told Sean Hannity shortly after the president’s speech last night.
Obama is correctly reading public opinion. He knows that the risk of offending the hawks by overruling the general is worth the gain of being seen by an increasingly war-weary electorate as bringing the “peace dividend” home.
It should pay off politically, especially with the remainder of the surge troops coming home two months before the 2012 election. It’s risky, though. Things in Afghanistan have a way of going terribly wrong.
In his confirmation hearings today, General Petraeus admitted to the Senate Intelligence Committee that he disagreed with the president’s decision, but ultimately supports it anyway.
“Each person above me—all the way up to and including the president—has a broader purview and has broader considerations that are brought to bear,” Petraeus told the committee, a possible swipe at the domestic political advantages of Obama’s decision. “The commander in chief has decided and it is then the responsibility, needless to say, of those in uniform to salute smartly and do everything humanly possible to execute it.”
General Petraeus, in his new role as CIA director, will be asked to assess the effectiveness of a strategy with which he—now, publicly—disagreed.
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