For months, a debate raged at the top levels of the Bush administration over how quickly to reduce the number of U.S. troops in Iraq. But the discussion shut down soon after President Bush flew to Camp Arifjan, a dusty Army base near the Iraqi border in Kuwait, in January for a face-to-face meeting with the man whose counsel on the war he values most: Gen. David H. Petraeus.
During an 80-minute session, the president questioned his top commander in Iraq on whether further troop reductions, beyond those planned through July, would compromise security gains. According to officials familiar with the exchange, Petraeus said he wanted to wait until the summer to evaluate conditions -- and Bush made it clear he would support him and take any political heat.
"My attitude is, if he didn't want to continue the drawdown, that's fine with me," Bush said before television cameras later, with Petraeus standing by his side. "I said to the general: 'If you want to slow her down, fine; it's up to you.' "
In the waning months of his administration, Bush has hitched his fortunes to those of his bookish four-star general, bypassing several levels of the military chain of command to give Petraeus a privileged voice in White House deliberations over Iraq, according to current and former administration officials and retired officers. In so doing, Bush's working relationship with his field commander has taken on an intensity that is rare in the history of the nation's wartime presidents.
Those ties will be on display this week, when Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker report to Congress on progress in Iraq, and when Bush is expected to announce a decision on future force levels. By all accounts, Petraeus's view that a "pause" is needed this summer before troop cuts can continue has prevailed in the White House, trumping concerns by the Joint Chiefs of Staff and others that the Army's long-term health could be threatened by the enduring presence of many combat forces in Iraq.