When Gen. David Petraeus takes charge of U.S. Central Command at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa on Friday, he will be taking on a difficult assignment. But his job will be made even more difficult because of what Sen. John McCain has done and said.
In the three presidential debates, the only person other than "Joe the Plumber" whom McCain has frequently used to try to discredit his opponent is Petraeus. As several analysts have pointed out, McCain's unprecedented use of an active-duty military officer for partisan political purposes is doing a disservice to the country by undermining civilian control of the military. However, Petraeus is hardly an innocent victim. In fact, the general has been heavily involved in partisan politics for the past four years.
On Sept. 26, 2004 — approximately six weeks before the 2004 presidential election in which the deteriorating situation in Iraq was an increasingly important issue — Petraeus, then in charge of training Iraqi security forces, published an op-ed column in the Washington Post. He wrote glowingly of the progress the Iraqi security forces were making under his tutelage. According to the article, training was on track and increasing in capacity: More than 200,000 Iraqis were performing a wide variety of security missions, 45 Iraqi national guard battalions and six regular Iraqi army battalions were conducting operations on a daily basis, and six additional regular army battalions and six Iraqi Intervention Force battalions would become operational by the end of November 2004. The Bush administration's policy at that time was "we will stand down when they stand up." Petraeus' article, accordingly, had the effect of telling the electorate that there was light at the end of the tunnel.
The op-ed was patently false and misleading, but that was not the worst part. If Petraeus wrote and published the article on his own initiative, he was injecting himself improperly into a political campaign. If he was encouraged to do so by his civilian superiors, he was allowing his military professionalism to be used for partisan political purposes.
When questioned about this op-ed by Steve Coll of the New Yorker, Petraeus justified writing this piece by telling Coll that he has long been a published writer. When I criticized this article in an op-ed, Petraeus' public-affairs officer claimed that "over the times he has been in Iraq, he has written op-eds on various topics in order to provide context to what is happening on the ground." But Ilan Goldenberg, of the National Security Network, searched 200 newspapers and could not find another op-ed that Petraeus had written in the previous five years.
This was not the only time that Petraeus crossed the line. On Aug. 28, 2005, as American casualties mounted and Cindy Sheehan was asking to meet with President Bush in Crawford, Texas, four retired army generals were scheduled to go on Meet the Press to discuss the deteriorating situation in Iraq. Three of these generals, Wayne Downing, Barry McCaffrey, and Montgomery Meigs, were participants in a secret briefing program being run by the Pentagon (The fourth general, Wesley Clark, was not). To ensure that the session went well, a Pentagon spokesman asked Petraeus, still in charge of training the Iraqi security forces, to help ensure that the three Army generals who participated in the secret briefing program toed the party line.
Once again, he did not disappoint his political bosses. After talking to and e-mailing with the three participants, Petraeus persuaded them to paint such a rosy picture of the training of Iraqi forces that the American people were led to believe that the Bush policy was succeeding.
Meigs told Tim Russert that we were winning. McCaffrey said that by August 2006, there would be a huge Iraqi security force out in the field and a drawdown of a third or so of U.S. forces. Downing estimated the drawdown would occur in another year or 15 months. Of course, none of this occurred. According to Lt. Gen. James Dubik, the American officer most recently in charge of training the ISF, these forces are still not ready.
A year later, in May 2006, when violence in Iraq was skyrocketing and there was no prospect of U.S. forces drawing down or the Bush administration changing its strategy, Petraeus, then head of the Combined Arms Center at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, met with the Iraq Study Group. According to Bob Woodward's latest book, he told the group that the Bush administration strategy was sound and that no alternative strategy was better.
Not surprisingly, Petraeus' mentor, retired Gen. Jack Keane, persuaded the Bush administration and McCain to place this political general in charge of Central Command. They believed this appointment would ensure that Bush's Iraq strategy would be locked in, regardless of who won the 2008 presidential election.
McCain and Petraeus are career military officers who should know better. Hopefully, they have not done long-term damage to civilian-military relations by their actions.
Lawrence J. Korb, former assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration, is a senior adviser to the Center for Defense Information.