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Why I Voted Against Promoting Petraeus

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Today I voted 'no' on the nomination of General David H. Petraeus, the current commander of the Multi-National Force-Iraq, to be Commander, United States Central Command. I was unable to attend General Petraeus' nomination hearing before the Armed Services Committee because I was managing the Supplemental Appropriations bill on the Senate floor, but I reviewed his testimony. I also posed a number of questions to General Petraeus after the hearing, and studied his responses.

I appreciate General Petraeus' evident intelligence and his expertise and experience in Iraq. He wrote the book on countering insurgencies for the Army. He led the 101st Airborne Division during the V Corps drive to Baghdad in 2003. He established the Multi-National Security Transition Command Iraq in 2004. He has served as Commander of the Multi-National Force-Iraq since January 2007. He is the architect of the so-called 'surge strategy' that is even now being played out in Iraq.

The 'surge strategy' is, in fact, one of the reasons why I believe General Petraeus should remain in his current position as Commander of the Multi-National Force-Iraq. Marshal Ferdinand Foch, Supreme Commander of the Allied Armies at the conclusion of World War I, observed in his 1920 book, Precepts and Judgments, that "great results in war are due to the commander. History is therefore right in making generals responsible for victories -- in which case they are glorified; and for defeats -- in which case they are disgraced." The jury is still out on the success or failure of the 'surge strategy.' General Petraeus should bring it to its conclusion before he is rewarded with a promotion.

Continuity of command has been a problem in Iraq. Historically, when the United States has been involved in protracted conflicts, continuity of command has been maintained, be it Generals Eisenhower or MacArthur during World War II, or General Westmoreland during the Vietnam Conflict. General Petraeus has only been in his current position for eighteen months. Since President Bush believes that General Petraeus has done well in his current position, but he, Secretary Gates and General Petraeus have all described the security situation in Iraq as tenuous and reversible, it does not seem prudent to remove the mastermind behind the fragile successes that have been thus far achieved.

Almost one year ago, on July 14, 2007, President Bush said in a radio address that, "When America starts drawing down our forces in Iraq, it will be because our military commanders say the conditions on the ground are right -- not because pollsters say it would be good politics." That strategy does not work well, however, when you keep changing commanders. No new commander is going to come in and say "reduce the troop levels on my watch," because if, through their lack of familiarity with the conditions on the ground, they are wrong, that defeat would be their disgrace, just as Marshal Foch observed in 1920. So, a year after President Bush's statement, troop levels in Iraq are only just returning to something close to the 'pre-surge' levels of January 2007, when General Petraeus assumed command in Iraq. If, as General Petraeus has said, no further decisions on additional draw-downs will be made until sometime in the fall of 2008, a new commander will be called upon to make that decision.

I am also concerned about General Petraeus' unwillingness to address questions regarding other regional issues, such as in Afghanistan or Iran, during his nomination hearing. Such evasiveness is not politic; it is troubling at a time when news reports suggest that the Taliban is resurgent in Afghanistan and that President Bush may be contemplating military action against Iran. Despite the press of his responsibilities in Iraq, General Petraeus must be concerned with how other operations or other political considerations in the same theater affect his options in Iraq. Equally, he must consider how political changes in his chain of command might affect his operations in Iraq, yet he will not admit even the existence of contingency plans for potential troop drawdowns that might be required by a new administration. If the competing priorities for manpower and material are to be sorted out at the CENTCOM level, it must be done with a clear understanding of what is possible and what is achievable, by someone willing to take a stand in support of all the men and women who will be called upon to carry out those priorities, not by someone who only salutes and carries out orders or by someone who knows only a fraction of the full situation. General Petraeus' career will be judged in large part by his role in the Iraq conflict; his reticence to address other regional issues raises questions about his willingness to devote the focus and the resources needed to address them properly.

Finally, the repeated rotations of U.S. soldiers to Iraq and Afghanistan are taking a toll on our military. Elements of the 4th Infantry Division, 1st Infantry Division, 1st Cavalry Division, and the 172nd Infantry Brigade are facing a third tour in Iraq and Afghanistan. Elements of the 82nd Airborne Division are facing a fourth tour. With these repeated tours and the continuation of the 'stop loss' policy of forcibly retaining troops on active duty in order to maintain unit integrity necessitated by the strain this war is placing on our forces, it is difficult to understand why these troops should not be entitled to a continuity of command. The troops appreciate the effectiveness of working together as a unit when confronting danger on a regular basis. They deserve a leadership corps that, like them, functions together as a unit and stay together.

More than 12,000 service members are currently affected by 'stop loss' orders that prohibit them from retiring or leaving the service even though they are eligible for retirement or their terms of enlistment have expired. That total includes 6,800 active-duty Army personnel, about 3,800 Army National Guard personnel and almost 1,500 Army Reservists who are not allowed to leave military service despite having fulfilled their service obligations.

Lt. General James Thurman, the Army's deputy chief of staff for operations, has said that he hoped, but could not promise, that if the demand for troops stabilized at around 15 combat brigades, the use of the 'stop loss' could be ended by the end of Fiscal Year 2009, or the beginning of Fiscal Year 2010 - in September or October of 2009, more than a year from now. 'But demand exceeds supply right now,' he stated. For the 12,000 affected service members, and those who will become eligible to retire or leave service between now and late 2009, this amounts to another 18 months of forced conscription. Until the practice of 'stop loss' is ended, perhaps General Petraeus and other military leaders should remain in their current assignments until the U.S. can transition the responsibility for the security of Iraq to Iraqis.