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Like Ike: Petraeus for President?

The man in charge of winning the war has been called a "walking mass of ambition." Is General David Petraeus eyeing a White House run?and what does that mean for what he says about Iraq?

| Mon Sep. 10, 2007 2:00 AM EDT

Lawrence Korb, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress who served as an assistant secretary of defense during the Reagan administration, worries that Petraeus could try too hard to accentuate the positive in Iraq. He has called Petraeus "the most political general since General [Douglas] MacArthur," who was considered a possible Republican contender in the 1952 election that ultimately went to Eisenhower. In particular, Korb points to a Washington Post op-ed Petraeus wrote a few weeks before the 2004 election, delivering an upbeat assessment of the progress made in training Iraq's security forces. "That's not something Eisenhower would do; MacArthur would do that," Korb says. "With MacArthur he was basically trying to influence the policy." Which means, Korb says, that Petraeus' Iraq assessment should be taken "with a grain of salt given his previous track record."

Last week, nearly three years after Petraeus reported signs of "tangible progress" in his Washington Post op-ed, while acknowledging "tough times" ahead, an independent congressional commission headed by retired General James Jones, the former commandant of the Marine Corps, said that it will be at least another year before the Iraqi army can take the lead in providing security for the country. In far worse shape is the Iraqi police force, which the report said is "incapable of providing security at a level sufficient to protect Iraqi neighborhoods."

Lawrence Wilkerson, the retired army colonel who served as Colin Powell's chief of staff at the State Department, calls Petraeus a "good officer" but questions his work training Iraq's security forces. "When he was associated with the training to get as many Iraqis stood up in the security arena, he was fascinated by numbers," Wilkerson says. "I had people working in Iraq, both civilian and military, who emailed me on a daily basis telling me that Petraeus was more interested in numbers than he was quality and that the forces that were being 'trained' weren't really viable. That's pretty much come to pass."

Wilkerson continues, "He's part of this whole process the Bush administration has created, which is a bunch of military leaders who are either scared to death or so fascinated with their own power and ambition that they're not willing to tell the emperor he's got no clothes on." Nevertheless, Wilkerson remains cautiously optimistic that Petraeus, together with Ambassador Ryan Crocker, will "provide a fair assessment of what's going on over there, with all the warts."

In terms of what Petraeus will say when he appears before Congress on Monday, "he has kept his thoughts very close to his chest," a person close to the general says. Reports that have trickled out over the past couple weeks indicate that he is likely to recommend maintaining an enhanced troop presence in Iraq into next year, in line with the Bush administration's stay-the-course stance. In a letter to troops on Friday, previewing what he planned to tell Congress, Petraeus was optimistic, while conceding that progress has not been "uniform." Describing the situation in Iraq as "exceedingly complex," he told the troops that "we are, in short, a long way from the goal line, but we do have the ball and we are driving down the field."

Meanwhile, the faint rumblings about an eventual Petraeus candidacy grew a bit louder in advance of his appearance on the Hill. On Thursday, the New York Sun ran an editorial suggesting a scenario in which the general rebukes congressional Democrats for "undermining" his mission and threatens to resign to take his "case to the voters in a run for the presidency on a campaign to finish the work of winning the war."

Most other observers see that as far-fetched. "I'm quite convinced that he's 100 percent concentrated on conducting the war," says Stephen Biddle of the Council on Foreign Relations, who met with Petraeus last spring as part of a team sent to Iraq to assess the effectiveness of the surge. "I don't think that I've seen any evidence that some desire for high political office is somehow polluting or distorting his judgment about Iraq."

For his part, Petraeus is clearly aware of the speculation—and doing nothing to either fan or discourage it. "I've heard him laugh every time anyone brings up the political aspects," says Colonel Steve Boylan, Petraeus' spokesman. Downplaying the Eisenhower comparisons, he likens Petraeus instead to General George Marshall, the army chief of staff during World War II, who refused to vote in order to remain above politics (just as Petraeus has done since joining the senior leadership, Boylan notes). "I've heard him state on the record and in various venues that he has no political leanings and that he plans on being a soldier for the foreseeable future," Boylan says. "What happens five, 10, 15 years from now, who knows?"

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