WASHINGTON - 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.
This writer became aware of Petraeus's effort to influence the coverage of Obama's unfolding policy on troop withdrawal when a military source close to the general, who insisted on anonymity, offered the Petraeus account on Feb. 4. The military officer was responding to the IPS story 'Generals Seek to Reverse Obama Withdrawal Decision' published two days earlier.
The story reported that Obama had rejected Petraeus's argument against a 16-month withdrawal option at the meeting and asked for a withdrawal plan within that time frame, and that Petraeus had been unhappy with the outcome of the meeting.
It also reported that Gen. Ray Odierno, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, and retired Army general Jack Keane, a close ally of Petraeus, had both made public statements indicating a determination to get Obama to abandon the 16-month plan.
The officer told IPS that, contrary to the story, Petraeus had been "very pleased" with the direction of the discussions. He said that there had been no decision by Obama at the meeting and no indication that Obama had a preference for one option over another.
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 authorized 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 advisers 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."
That suggests that the only specific plan for which Obama requested an assessment of risks was the 16-month plan, but that he agreed to look at other plans as well.
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.
One of Petraeus's objectives appears to have been to counter any perception that he is seeking to undermine Obama on Iraq policy. Petraeus wishes to remain out of the spotlight in regard to any conflict regarding withdrawal over the Iraq issue. "He has been very careful to keep a very low profile," said the military officer close to Petraeus, "because this is a new administration."
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.
In a new book, 'The Gamble', to be published Tuesday, Washington Post reporter Tom Ricks confirms an earlier report that in his initial encounter with Petraeus in Baghdad last July, Obama had made no effort to hide his sharp disagreement with the general's views. Obama interrupted a lecture by Petraeus, according to Ricks, and made it clear that, as president, he would need to take a broader strategic view of the issue than that of the commander in Iraq.
Ricks, who interviewed Petraeus about the meeting, writes that Obama's remarks "likely insulted Petraeus, who justly prides himself on his ability to do just that..." That strongly implies that Petraeus expressed some irritation at Obama over the incident to Ricks.
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.
Petraeus evidently believed the White House was promoting a story that made him look like the loser at the Jan. 21 meeting. "I imagine the White House is not too happy that this information is out there," said the military source, referring to the Petraeus account he had provided to IPS.
Obama is obviously treading warily in handling Petraeus. His concern about Petraeus's political ambitions may have been a factor in the decision to bring four-star Marine Corps Gen. James Jones in as his national security adviser.
"I've been told by a couple of people that one of the reasons for Jones being chosen was to have him there as a four-star to counter Petraeus," says one Congressional source.
Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specialising in U.S. national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book, "Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam", was published in 2006.