US-Iraq: Generals Seek to Reverse Obama Withdrawal Decision

Washington — CENTCOM commander Gen. David Petraeus, supported by Defense Secretary Robert Gates, tried to convince President Barack Obama that he had to back down from his campaign pledge to withdraw all U.S. combat troops from Iraq within 18 months at an Oval Office meeting Jan. 21.

But Obama informed Gates, Petraeus and Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen that he wasn’t convinced and that he wanted Gates and the military leaders to come back quickly with a detailed 16-month plan, according to two sources who have talked with participants in the meeting.

Obama’s decision to override Petraeus’s recommendation has not ended the conflict between the president and senior military officers over troop withdrawal, however. There are indications that Petraeus and his allies in the military and the Pentagon, including Gen. Ray Odierno, now the top commander in Iraq, have already begun to try to pressure Obama to change his withdrawal policy.

A network of senior military officers is also reported to be preparing to support Petraeus and Odierno by mobilizing public opinion against Obama’s decision.

Petraeus was visibly unhappy when he left the Oval Office, according to one of the sources. A White House staffer present at the meeting was quoted by the source as saying, “Petraeus made the mistake of thinking he was still dealing with George Bush instead of with Barack Obama.”

Petraeus, Gates and Odierno had hoped to sell Obama on a plan that they formulated in the final months of the Bush administration that aimed at getting around a key provision of the US-Iraqi withdrawal agreement signed envisioned re-categorizing large numbers of combat troops as support troops. That subterfuge was by the United States last November while ostensibly allowing Obama to deliver on his campaign promise.

Gates and Mullen had discussed the relabeling scheme with Obama as part of the Petraeus-Odierno plan for withdrawal they had presented to him in mid-December, according to a Dec. 18 New York Times story.

Obama decided against making any public reference to his order to the military to draft a detailed 16-month combat troop withdrawal policy, apparently so that he can announce his decision only after consulting with his field commanders and the Pentagon.

The first clear indication of the intention of Petraeus, Odierno and their allies to try to get Obama to amend his decision came on Jan. 29 when the New York Times published an interview with Odierno, ostensibly based on the premise that Obama had indicated that he was “open to alternatives.”

The Times reported that Odierno had “developed a plan that would move slower than Mr. Obama’s campaign timetable” and had suggested in an interview “it might take the rest of the year to determine exactly when United States forces could be drawn down significantly”.

The opening argument by the Petraeus-Odierno faction against Obama’s withdrawal policy was revealed the evening of the Jan. 21 meeting when retired Army Gen. Jack Keane, one of the authors of the Bush troop surge policy and a close political ally and mentor of Gen. Petraeus, appeared on the Lehrer News Hour to comment on Obama’s pledge on Iraq combat troop withdrawal.

Keane, who had certainly been briefed by Petraeus on the outcome of the Oval Office meeting, argued that implementing such a withdrawal of combat troops would “increase the risk rather dramatically over the 16 months.” He asserted that it would jeopardize the “stable political situation in Iraq” and called that risk “not acceptable.”

The assertion that Obama’s withdrawal policy threatens the gains allegedly won by the Bush surge and Petraeus’s strategy in Iraq will apparently be the theme of the campaign that military opponents are now planning.

Keane, the Army Vice-Chief of Staff from 1999 to 2003, has ties to a network of active and retired four-star Army generals, and since Obama’s Jan. 21 order on the 16-month withdrawal plan, some of the retired four-star generals in that network have begun discussing a campaign to blame Obama’s troop withdrawal from Iraq for the ultimate collapse of the political “stability” that they expect to follow U.S. withdrawal, according to a military source familiar with the network’s plans.

The source says the network, which includes senior active duty officers in the Pentagon, will begin making the argument to journalists covering the Pentagon that Obama’s withdrawal policy risks an eventual collapse in Iraq. That would raise the political cost to Obama of sticking to his withdrawal policy.

If Obama does not change the policy, according to the source, they hope to have planted the seeds of a future political narrative blaming his withdrawal policy for the “collapse” they expect in an Iraq without U.S. troops.

That line seems likely to appeal to reporters covering the Iraq troop withdrawal issue. Ever since Obama’s inauguration, media coverage of the issue has treated Obama’ s 16-month withdrawal proposal as a concession to anti-war sentiment which will have to be adjusted to the “realities” as defined by the advice to Obama from Gates, Petreaus and Odierno.

Ever since he began working on the troop surge, Keane has been the central figure manipulating policy in order to keep as many U.S. troops in Iraq as possible. It was Keane who got Vice President Dick Cheney to push for Petraeus as top commander in Iraq in late 2006 when the existing commander, Gen. George W. Casey, did not support the troop surge.

It was Keane who protected Petraeus’s interests in ensuring the maximum number of troops in Iraq against the efforts by other military leaders to accelerate troop withdrawal in 2007 and 2008. As Bob Woodward reported in The War Within, Keane persuaded President George W. Bush to override the concerns of the Joint Chiefs of Staff about the stress of prolonged U.S. occupation of Iraq on the U.S. Army and Marine Corps as well its impact on the worsening situation in Afghanistan.

Bush agreed in September 2007 to guarantee that Petraeus would have as many troops as he needed for as long as wanted, according to Woodward’s account.

Keane had also prevailed on Gates in April 2008 to make Petraeus the new commander of CENTCOM. Keane argued that keeping Petraeus in the field was the best insurance against a Democratic administration reversing the Bush policy toward Iraq.

Keane had operated on the assumption that a Democratic president would probably not take the political risk of rejecting Petraeus’s recommendation on the pace of troop withdrawal from Iraq. Woodward quotes Keane as telling Gates, “Let’s assume we have a Democratic administration and they want to pull this thing out quickly, and now they have to deal with General Petraeus and General Odierno. There will be a price to be paid to override them.”

Obama told Petraeus in Baghdad last July that, if elected, he would regard the overall health of the U.S. Army and Marine Corps and the situation in Afghanistan as more important than Petraeus’s obvious interest in maximizing U.S. troop strength in Iraq, according to Time magazine’s Joe Klein.

But judging from Petraeus’s shock at Obama’s Jan. 21 decision, he had not taken Obama’s previous rejection of his arguments seriously. That miscalculation suggests that Petraeus had begun to accept Keane’s assertion that a newly-elected Democratic president would not dare to override his policy recommendation on troops in Iraq.

Gareth Porter is an independent investigative journalist and historian and winner of the 2012 Gellhorn Prize for Journalism. His latest book, with John Kiriakou, is The CIA Insider’s Guide to the Iran Crisis: From CIA Coup to the Brink of War. Read other articles by Gareth.

13 comments on this article so far ...

Comments RSS feed

  1. Phil said on February 3rd, 2009 at 1:09pm #

    I’d feel a lot better if Obama was doing this in the interest of peace or stability, or toward the goal of actually bringing troops home. But since this is all a matter of shifting US terrorism & war crimes from one target to another, it doesn’t seem to make a difference who wins this little spat.

  2. Max Shields said on February 3rd, 2009 at 2:34pm #

    The Commander in Chief (war guy) is responsible for the mission. The military is responsible for execution, military strategy and tactics.

    So, it what is Obama’s mission? So far it’s the same one Bush had – war on terror. Since that is assinine, but the frame the POTUS has provided both the American people and the military, he has given himself little room to redefine the whole project.

    In the ugly game of war it all comes down to what front is the military fighting. Does the CiC determine that, or do the military officers.

    At bottom, what difference does it really make to the children and their families who will be terrorized by US drones?

    And let’s not forget, Obama’s “drawdown” doesn’t include eliminating US bases in Iraq.

    Oh the lite version of Bush. Smile sweetly as you commit war crimes.

  3. Rahb said on February 3rd, 2009 at 5:06pm #

    Note, that it also seems pretty easy to come through(ish) on high profile issues/ conveniently leaving behind others. The US seems pretty divided right now. I spy civil war on the horizon, especially if more “privatization” (really corporatization) of the military and intelligence agencies continues along with everything else, potentially caused by the loss of government finances, because of the “economic crisis” -which normally I’d support if it didn’t just represent a shift in power to even less “democratic” institutions… I wonder if Barrack is thinking in the same direction, not that I have any delusions about the guy, it would explain some of his actions/ desperately trying to hold the country along with its corrupt government (due to lack of insight) together… POTUSA have never, in the past, hesitated to act brutally and destroy other people for that very reason. nothin’ to do with anythin’ really, just a thought…

  4. The Socialist Idealist said on February 3rd, 2009 at 5:39pm #

    I’m wondering if Obama really has a real desire for a 16 month withdrawal plan that he intends to follow through on, or if he just wants to blame the generals when he decides not to withdraw from Iraq.

  5. The Angry Peasant said on February 3rd, 2009 at 8:41pm #

    After all this time and bloodshed, not to mention the mountains of wasted unfairly-taxed money, you have to stand back and just think how Osama bin Laden, the man who (supposedly) is responsible for all this madness (although we know the real motives) has been let off the hook. Millions displaced, thousands dead, thousands maimed…and he’s forgotten by the American people. If this had happened in the forties, would the American population just say, “Ah, never mind him” about Hitler? Yes, folks, we really have become that apathetic. Nobody cares, other than the families of the 9/11 victims. As far as I can tell, Osama won. He obliterated the America that we used to know.

  6. DavidG. said on February 3rd, 2009 at 9:40pm #

    Don’t be so hard on Osama, Angry Peasant. After all, America supported him at one stage (just like Saddam).

    The real culprit is the bible-bashing, gun-toting, greed-filled Yank!

  7. rg the lg said on February 3rd, 2009 at 10:58pm #

    Civil war on the horizon.

    There are those who would scoff. But, I work with a lady who thinks that if O’Bama does try to pull us out of Iraq he should be removed from office. And, I suspect she is not alone.

    In some ways, a civil war is long overdue. But, I doubt if the pantiwaste american male is up to fighting for his rights. Maybe some women are, but ya know … I doubt it. Whether we want to admit it or not, it is the ‘old’ pre-Bush empire we wanted when we voted for O’Bama.

    I doubt if the current police state can be undone by those captive to it. Like Germany during WWII we will have to be brought to our senses by the rest of the world. We haven’t the guts to admit we are wrong … and we’ll fight like hell to preserve our ‘place in the sun.’ The Germans fought for their place despite having an asshole like Hitler …

    Think about it. Would you revolt? Really?

    Of course not … and thus it is WE who are complicit. Talk all you want, but until you act, it is just so much yada, yada, yada …

    RG the LG

  8. Martha said on February 4th, 2009 at 8:45am #

    “I’m wondering if Obama really has a real desire for a 16 month withdrawal plan that he intends to follow through on, or if he just wants to blame the generals when he decides not to withdraw from Iraq.”
    Socialist Idealist, he seems to get a lot of help there from Gareth whose back must be going out after many months of helping to carry the water.

  9. Michael Hureaux said on February 4th, 2009 at 9:18am #

    If Obama were about anything, he’d make a national speech in which he asserted the civilian authority in this government, and he’d fire every general who was disputing with the civilian head of government. It is ridiculous that any elected public official takes their cues from the military, but then, it just goes to show how deep the inroads of the national lockdown state have undermined any constitutional process in this country.

  10. brian said on February 4th, 2009 at 3:50pm #

    Just watched JFK last night….where the implication is Kennedy angered the military, leading them to organise a Coup-d’etat.
    Is Obama going to suffer the same blowback?

    Is it true only democratic politicians have ever been assassinated??

  11. Brian said on February 4th, 2009 at 3:58pm #

    McKinley, a Republican, was assassinated. So was Lincoln.

    btw, JFK ain’t all that accurate. Not saying Stone is wrong to assert a conspiracy to kill JFK, but what he asserts in the film is flimsy, not based on the documentary record, which does support a conspiracy, but since the crime was never properly investigated the leads to the real killers went unexamined.

  12. Max Shields said on February 4th, 2009 at 5:00pm #

    Good catch, Martha.

  13. The Angry Peasant said on February 4th, 2009 at 8:56pm #

    You know, when RG the LG takes a break from advocating mass suicide, he makes some sense.

    Let me just say that to answer your question, RG: Yes. I would indeed revolt. My screen moniker is no bullshit. If anyone in DV has a legitimate claim to having very little to lose, and a lifetime’s worth of suffering at the hands of this impeccably evil system, it is me. The fact that I even have this damn computer is just another passing luxury for me. I grew up poor, I got fucked at every job I’ve ever had despite working my ass off. (I discovered years ago that all hard work gets you is more hard work.) I’ve been dragged into court more times than I can recall and threatened with jailtime over being unable to pay expenses that would come free as a human right in other places. I have a son who, at just five, is already doomed to a life of poverty. I can already envision the endless ribbing in school he’ll be subjected to for being a poor, homely kid, like I was. I can see him working a dead-end job in his thirties, like me, probably having only a bottle of Scotch at whatever shitty apartment he’s barely hanging on to to look forward to.

    There is no scale in existence that could possibly measure my disgust, rage, and hatred in regards to this heartless country and the people who keep it that way. If there is a revolution to be had, I’m going to be a fucking general.