Why Should Petraeus’s Confirmation Be a Cakewalk?

The SCLM is busy assuring me this morning that Gen. Petraeus's confirmation as the head of CenCom is a done deal.

Asked about Petraeus's prospects for Senate confirmation, Gates said he already had conferred with Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat, as well as Senator John McCain of Arizona, a presidential candidate and ranking Republican on the panel, and Senator John Warner of Virginia, a top Republican voice on military issues.

`High Respect'

“I think they all have high respect for General Petraeus,'' Gates said. “He has clearly been successful in his current assignment, and so I don't really anticipate any problems.''

Levin limited his public comments to a statement saying he was “hoping to schedule a prompt confirmation hearing.''

McCain, a strong supporter of the U.S. military buildup in Iraq that Petraeus advocated and then commanded, called him “one of the great generals in American history'' who had achieved “dramatic success'' in Iraq.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was less welcoming. Reid, a Nevada Democrat, said he will be “looking for credible assurances of a strong commitment to implementing a more effective national security strategy'' when the nomination comes before the Senate. Reid said the battles against the Taliban in Afghanistan and al-Qaeda in Pakistan and the overall readiness of U.S. ground forces “have suffered as a result of the current costly Iraq strategy,'' requiring “fresh, independent and creative thinking.

Perhaps because the relevant committee is the generally pliant Armed Services Committee, the easy confirmation story may be correct. But why should Petraeus's confirmation be a cakewalk? There are three ways in which this appointment is unusual, and the combo ought to be enough to give one pause.

First, and perhaps least important, there's the Army policy issue. As I understand it, the practice in the Army is to rotate commanders in from outside the area, rather than promoting up from within. The Army justifies this on two grounds: first, it gives its top commanders the opportunity to develop a wider perspective. Second, it's a quiet way of getting rid of bad policies, as the new broom comes in and lets the bad ideas wither on the vine; promoting from within means that one gets more of the same, good or bad. I rate this 'least important' because I've long had doubts about the Army's rotation (or, if you prefer, revolving door) policy. We did it Vietnam, and it contributed to our failure there by creating a 'ticket-punching' mentality; there's a lot to be said for the WWII approach in which commanders were responsible for the consequences of their actions, and either got removed or got promoted to jobs they were most likely to understand quickly. In principle I don't necessarily object to overriding this norm, although I have doubts about both Petraeus and General Ray Odierno who will replace him as the commander in Iraq. (Seems Ray Odierno has a bit of reputation.)

Second, there is the politics of the thing. Promoting Petraeus to the theater command is like leaving a minefield for the next President, especially if s/he's one who would like to withdraw from Iraq, or even downsize our occupation there. Especially if he's angling for a GOP Presidential nomination in the future, he has every incentive to balk.

Third, and by far the most important reason to hold up the confirmation, there are some unanswered questions about Petraeus's veracity. See for example, this debate a year ago over whether Petraeus lied to a Congressional committee about US policy on arming Sunni tribes, and was at the most charitable very highly misleading to Congress about the level of violence in Iraq. Not to mention the suggestion he may recently have been less than forthcoming about discussions with Iraqi PM Nouri al-Maliki regarding military action in Basra.

Why should Congress confirm Petraeus to such high office at a critical time in our two ongoing military actions when he has a proven record of failing to testify fully and honestly?

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