Bloomberg News scored a major opportunity when news broke Wednesday evening that (1) President Obama had scrapped four proposals for operations in Afghanistan; and (2) the U.S. ambassador to that country had expressed deep reservations about a troop build-up.
The news outlet was, on Thursday, hosting a Washington summit. And its featured guest was General David Petraeus, head of the United States Central Command and, perhaps, the most highly-respected voice in the armed forces.
So which topic was the center of discussion? It was, in the end, topic (3): None of the above.
For 30 minutes, Petraeus was asked about a host of policy issues not by a reporter, but by Michael O'Hanlon, a prominent war cheerleader and fellow at the Brookings Institution. The issues covered were surely substantive -- ranging from U.S. commitments to Pakistan, the ability to sustain security achievements in Iraq and the difficulties posed by Iran. But never once was the issue of the day broached.
The closest O'Hanlon came was when, at the very beginning of the session, he asked Petraeus whether he thought the template for counterinsurgency in Iraq was transferable to Afghanistan. It was the same question Petraeus fielded the last time he appeared at a forum at the Newseum in Washington D.C.: The Atlantic's First Draft of History Conference on the first of October.
For the next half hour, the task of quizzing Petraeus was turned over to the crowd, and the questions offered ventured even further into the obscure. At one point, the general discussed the military's policy toward Somali pirate ships for roughly ten minutes. Halfway in, it seemed like a breakthrough could happen. A reporter from U.S. News and World Report was able to get her hand on a microphone. But before she could get through her own introduction she was asked to pass the mic along after it was explained that the inquiries were to be saved primarily for the audience and a trade publication reporter had asked the previous question.
Finally, the spotlight came back to O'Hanlon, who on various occasions during the forum had expressed the appreciation and friendship he felt for Petraeus. His last query, however, returned to the issue of Pakistan -- certainly a worthwhile topic but not, necessarily, THE topic. The hour ended without one question on the White House strategy sessions taking place on Afghanistan or the concerns raised by Amb. Karl Eikenberry, who in classified cables revealed the night before, had expressed misgivings about sending additional forces into war.
Leaving the stage, the Huffington Post was able to track Petraeus down. But by then he was in the clear and making a quick dash for the exit.
"Are you comfortable with the president's decision to continue deliberations on Afghanistan?" I asked.
"I'm sorry I'm not taking any questions about that," he replied.
Indeed, he wasn't.