WASHINGTON, Feb 9 (IPS) - The political maneuvering between President Barack Obama and his top field commanders over withdrawal from Iraq has taken a sudden new turn with the leak by CENTCOM commander Gen. David Petraeus - and a firm denial by a White House official - of an account of the Jan. 21 White House meeting suggesting that Obama had requested three different combat troop withdrawal plans with their respective associated risks, including one of 23 months.
The Petraeus account, reported by McClatchy newspapers Feb. 5 and then by the Associated Press the following day, appears to indicate that Obama is moving away from the 16-month plan he had vowed during the campaign to implement if elected. But on closer examination, it doesn't necessarily refer to any action by Obama or to anything that happened at the Jan. 21 meeting.
The real story of the leak by Petraeus is that the most powerful figure in the U.S. military has tried to shape the media coverage of Obama and combat troop withdrawal from Iraq to advance his policy agenda - and, very likely, his personal political interests as well.
The military source provided the following carefully worded statement: "We were specifically asked to provide projections, assumptions and risks for the accomplishment of objectives associated with 16-, 19- and 23-month drawdown options." That was exactly the sentence published by McClatchy the following day, except that "specifically" was left out.
The source also said Petraeus, Odierno and Ambassador Ryan Crocker had already reached a "unified assessment" on the three drawdown options and had forwarded them to the chain of command.
But a White House official told IPS Monday that the Petraeus account was untrue. "The assessments of the three drawdown dates were not requested by the president," said the official, who insisted on not being identified because he had not been authorised to comment on the matter. "He never said, 'Give me three drawdown plans'."
McClatchy's Nancy Youssef reported a similar account from aides to Obama. "Obama told his advisors shortly after taking office that he remained committed to the 16-month timeframe," Youssef wrote, "but asked them to present him with the pros and cons of that and other options, without specifying dates
The sentence given to this writer as well as to McClatchy bore one obvious clue that the request for the assessments of three drawdown plans did not come from Obama: the sentence used the passive voice. It also failed to explicitly state that the request in question was made during the meeting with Obama.
Petraeus did not respond to a request through the intermediary to say who requested the studies and whether they had been proposed by the military commanders themselves. McClatchy's Youssef also noted that it is "unclear who came up with the idea..." of the 19- and 23-month withdrawal plans.
By implying that Obama had requested the three plans without saying so explicitly, the sentence leaked by Petraeus seems to have been calculated to create a misleading story.
But the Petraeus leak also serves to promote the idea that Obama is moving away from his campaign pledge on a 16-month combat troop withdrawal, which has already been the dominant theme in news media coverage of the issue. That idea would also justify continued sniping by military officers at the Obama 16-month plan as too risky.
On top of the interest of Petraeus and other senior officers in keeping U.S. troops in Iraq for as long as possible, Petraeus has personal political interests at stake in the struggle over Iraq policy. He has been widely regarded as a possible Republican Presidential candidate in 2012.
If General Petraeus wants to run for President in 2012, I say President Obama should do him a favor and cut his ass loose so he can have all the time in the world to get ready for his campaign instead of spending his time fucking up Obama's foreign policy.