Petraeus Must Now Answer The Question He Dodged

Our guest blogger is Peter Juul, a national security consultant at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

centcom.JPGGeneral David Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, has been promoted by the Bush administration to take charge of Central Command, or CENTCOM. For those unfamiliar with the military lexicon, CENTCOM is a geographical command that encompasses the greater Middle East from Egypt in the west to Pakistan in the east and the Horn of Africa in the south to Kazakhstan in the north.

Petraeus replaces Admiral William Fallon, who resigned in March over disagreements with the administration’s regional strategy. During his tenure as CENTCOM commander, Fallon argued for greater attention to the mission in Afghanistan, increased diplomacy with Iran, and a faster drawdown in Iraq. This last view put Fallon into conflict with both Petraeus and the White House, who both saw Iraq as the top priority. As a result, Petraeus had the ear of the White House and Fallon was marginalized in the eyes of observers.

Petraeus’ appointment as CENTCOM commander seemingly confirms the suspicion that Fallon’s resignation was due to his disagreements with the overly Iraq-centric administration regional strategy. Now, the argument goes, the White House has a commander more in tune with its own strategic priorities.

While this view may be valid, it is entirely possible Petraeus may shift his views upon taking responsibility for the entire region. During previous testimony before Congress, he has dodged questions of regional strategy by reminding congressional inquisitors that his responsibility was Iraq, not the region. But as the old bureaucratic politics chestnut goes, “where you stand depends on where you sit,” and Petraeus’ new chair may give him a new perspective.

The big question of this appointment, therefore, is whether Petraeus’ views will change as a result of wider responsibilities. It is imperative that Congress ask the broader regional strategic questions of Petraeus in confirmation hearings to get answers on this score. Petraeus cannot now avoid these questions given his additional duties as CENTCOM commander.

In the event Petraeus modifies his views on the strategic equation, will the White House listen? Or will he be marginalized like Admiral Fallon? Given the close relationship between Washington and Petraeus, this turn of events seems unlikely. But recent history should give Congress reason to engage in deep and incisive questioning at confirmation hearings.