WASHINGTON - The nomination of Gen. David Petraeus to be the new head of the Central Command not only ensures that he will be available to defend the George W. Bush administration's policies toward Iran and Iraq at least through the end of Bush's term and possibly even beyond.
It also gives Vice President Dick Cheney greater freedom of action to exploit the option of an air attack against Iran during the administration's final months.
Petraeus will take up the CENTCOM post in late summer or early fall, according to Defence Secretary Robert Gates.
The ability of the administration to threaten Iran with an attack both publicly and behind the scenes had been dramatically reduced in 2007 by opposition from the former CENTCOM commander, Adm. William Fallon, until he stepped down from the post under pressure from Gates and the White House last month.
Petraeus has proved himself willing to cooperate closely with the White House policy lines on Iraq and Iran, arguing against any post-surge reduction in troop strength policy and blaming Iran for challenges to the U.S. military presence. Along with the deference to Petraeus in Congress and the media, his pliability on those issues made him the obvious choice to replace Fallon.
But Petraeus had already effectively taken over many of the powers of the CENTCOM commander last year.
As the top commander in Iraq, Petraeus was in theory beneath Fallon in the chain of command. But in reality Petraeus ignored Fallon's views and took orders directly from the White House. Petraeus was in effect playing the role of CENTCOM commander in regard to the twin issues of Iraq and Iran.
Fallon clashed with Petraeus repeatedly from the beginning of his command about the surge and U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. Fallon opposed the surge and believed the U.S. should begin the withdrawal of most of its troops from Iraq. But he was effectively stymied by the close Petraeus-White House link from being able to influence U.S. military policy in Iraq and the region as a whole.
Fallon had also pushed very hard, according to a source familiar with his thinking, for trying to negotiate an agreement with Iran over innocent passage through the Strait of Hormuz in order to ease tensions caused by the U.S.-Iranian differences over the obligations of navy vessels transiting the Strait. But any such negotiations would have conflicted with the administration's emphasis on confrontation with Iran, and they weren't interested.
Petraeus revealed in his Congressional testimony Apr. 10 that he had already assumed some of the functions normally carried out by the CENTCOM commander in regard to relations with military leaders in the region. Petraeus said he had "actually gone to a couple of neighbouring countries in an effort... to get at the networks, the countries in which they operate, and the sources of some of these foreign fighters."
In fact, the Associated Press reported, Petraeus had taken trips to five different Middle Eastern countries -- Jordan, Kuwait, Bahrain, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates -- since September 2007. That should have been Fallon's job, but the White House had apparently made it clear they wanted Petraeus -- not Fallon -- to undertake missions.
It had become increasingly evident to Fallon that he was not really running things at CENTCOM, according to the source. Fallon's frustration about Petraeus' de facto power over Middle East policy was the main reason he was ready to step down.
SCROLL TO CONTINUE WITH CONTENT
Get our best delivered to your inbox.
But it was Fallon's refusal to accept the that the option of a military strike against Iran was still effectively on the table that led to serious tensions with the White House, as reported in Esquire magazine in early March. Fallon had evidently angered Cheney by suggesting publicly on three occasions between September and late November that a military strike against Iran had been ruled out by Washington.
Fallon's resignation announcement on Mar. 11 was followed less than a week later by a 10-day Cheney trip to the Middle East in which the vice president talked explicitly about the military option against Iran during visits to Turkey and Saudi Arabia. That suggested that Cheney felt freer to wield the military threat to Iran with Fallon neutralised.
Cheney aggressively solicited political support from Turkish leaders for a U.S. strike against Iranian nuclear facilities during his visit to Turkey last month, according to a source familiar with Cheney's meeting in Ankara.
Cheney was "very aggressive" in asking Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and President Abdullah Gul, as well as Turkey's chief of general staff Gen. Yasar Bukyukanit to get "on board" with such an attack, according to the source, who has access to reports from the Cheney visit.
Cheney indicated that Turkey had been added to the trip at the last minute, suggesting that the decision to visit Ankara was linked to the Fallon resignation.
After the meeting between Cheney and King Abdullah on the same trip, Saudi sources let it be known to the media that Abdullah had told Cheney that his government opposed any U.S. military strike against Iran. That suggested that Cheney had brought up the military option in Ryadh as well.
One of Cheney's main objectives on the trip appears to have been to get the message to Iran that the option of a strike against its nuclear facilities is still very much alive.
In an interview with Cheney while he was in Ankara, ABC News reporter Martha Raddatz commented, "[W]hen you come over here, people in the region start thinking you're over here to plan some sort of military action."
Cheney strongly implied that it was indeed the major objective of his trip. "Well, I think the important thing to keep in mind," he said, "is the objective that we share with many of our friends in the region, and that is that a nuclear-armed Iran would be very destabilising for the entire area."
Petraeus has become the primary administration spokesman for the argument holding Iran primarily responsible for the Shiite military resistance to the U.S. occupation of Iraq. Petraeus and his staff developed the idea in early 2007 that Iran was using so-called "special groups" of renegade Mahdi Army fighters to wage a proxy war against U.S. forces.
In his testimony before Congressional committees earlier this month, Petraeus declared that what he called the "special groups" allegedly organised and manipulated by Iran "pose the greatest long-term threat to the viability of a democratic Iraq".
*Gareth Porter is an historian and national security policy analyst. The paperback edition of his latest book, "Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam", was published in 2006.
© 2008 Inter Press Service