Defense Secretary Robert Gates's announcement Wednesday promoting General David Petraeus from his current post running the war in Iraq to head up U.S. Central Command triggered both political and military unease. That response may be inevitable, coming on the downside of an unpopular war and in the waning months of the tenure of the unpopular President who launched it.
While Republicans hailed the news that Petraeus who implemented the "surge" of 30,000 additional U.S. troops into Iraq, which is seen has having tamped down violence was moving up the chain of command, Democrats were cooler. Opponents of the war fear that if the Democrat-led Senate approves Petraeus's promotion, it could be taken as a signal to "stay the course" in a war that has dragged on for more than five years and has killed more than 4,000 U.S. troops. Party activists will be paying close attention to how Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama vote on Petraeus's new assignment, which the White House hopes will happen by the end of May. (Presumptive G.O.P. nominee John McCain hailed Petraeus' nomination, calling him "one of the great generals in American history.")
Democrats are unlikely to mount a campaign to block Petraeus' promotion. Yet Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said the next CENTCOM commander must come with new plans for Iraq "if directed to by a new President." Petraeus hedged last month when asked what he would say if a new President were to order a withdrawal plan within 60 days of taking office. He verbally juggled risks and objectives before conceding, "We take orders and we follow them."
The impact of promoting Petraeus, however, may be even greater in the national security establishment than on Capitol Hill. It's a wake-up call to old-school Army officers and their vanishing dreams of massive tank battles and artillery skirmishes, some of whom privately call Petraeus "King David" for his high self-regard and chumminess with reporters. Gates has made clear that wants commanders able to carry out the messy, irregular kind of combat championed by Petraeus that the Defense Secretary envisages the U.S. fighting for years to come. The promotion reinforces the message he delivered to young Air Force and Army officers on Monday, when he criticized their leaders for devoting too much time and effort to future potential wars, and not enough to the real wars now under way.
"The kinds of conflicts that we're doing, not just in Iraq but in Afghanistan, and some of the challenges that we face elsewhere in the region and in the Central Command area, are very much characterized by asymmetric warfare," Gates said. "And I don't know anybody in the United States military better qualified [than Petraeus] to lead that effort." Gates said he had discussed Petraeus's promotion with Senator Carl Levin, the Michigan Democrat who chairs the armed services committee, and said he didn't "anticipate any problems" in winning Senate approval. Petraeus, in a brief statement from Baghdad, said he is "honored to be nominated for this position."
U.S. Central Command is the core of the U.S. military's current operations it includes both Afghanistan and Iraq stretching from the Horn of Africa to Pakistan. Although its headquarters are at an Air Force base in Tampa, Fla., recent commanders have spent much of their time at their forward headquarters in Qatar. Petraeus will assume command late this summer or early fall, replacing Admiral William Fallon, who requested early retirement last month after he was portrayed in a magazine interview as the lone officer preventing a U.S. war with Iran. Petraeus's former deputy in Iraq, Lieutenant General Ray Odierno, will return to Baghdad in the Petraeus slot, giving up his new assignment as the Army's No. 2 officer after only two months back in the U.S. "There is no question that there are a handful of generals, like a lot of captains and enlisted soldiers and the NCOs," Gates said, "who have had repeated tours in Iraq."