The Petraeus Report: Already History?

Gen. David Petraeus

Gen. David Petraeus is briefed on operations in the restive Sunni neighborhood of Ghazaliya, Iraq, Aug. 18, 2007. Spencer Platt/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Spencer Platt/Getty Images

About a century ago, French statesman Georges Clemenceau said war had become too important to be left to the generals.

Now, it seems, the Bush White House has decided the upcoming report on the Iraq war by Gen. David Petraeus has become too important to be left to the general.

This vaunted progress report, due to Congress by Sept. 15, was always to be a joint product with U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker. But beyond this co-authorship, we are now told, the White House expects other officials to weigh in on the document, as well. The final report will include these viewpoints as well as the first-hand judgments from the front that everyone has been waiting for.

At one point, it was even suggested that this "Petraeus report" might be publicly presented by someone else, someone in whom the administration had total faith. The name of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was mentioned, as were other political appointees. The general and the ambassador, it was suggested, might be available to Congress only for closed-door briefings.

To its credit, the White House this week pulled down this last trial balloon, assuring reporters traveling with the president to Canada that Petraeus and Crocker would appear live and in person to give testimony to relevant congressional committees on Sept. 11 or 12. Care to bet which day the administration will pick?

But questions remain regarding the content and authorship of this momentous report. Critics pounced on the news of additional hands involved in the preparation, charging the final product would come from "White House hacks." Journalists in general wondered whether the president's speech writers would be working their magic on the final text.

Clemenceau, of course, would not be surprised. The "Petraeus report" has become such a linchpin of the administration's defense of this war that the White House cannot afford to gamble on its contents, its presentation or even its public reception.

The report must be hopeful and persuasive enough to win the White House at least another six months of Hill support for the troop surge. Otherwise, this last stab at salvaging something from the debacle in Iraq will be over.

Part of this is the president's own doing. He has publicly invoked the general's name scores of times in talking about the war in Iraq — as often, in fact, as he used to invoke the name of Saddam Hussein. When in mid-July the Senate spent all night debating a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq, Republicans pleaded for two more months — just 60 days more — so as to hear this crucial report from this fine man in uniform.

In fact, so much has been freighted on this one man, this one report and this one point in time that it is no longer possible for the "Petraeus report" to fulfill its original purpose. It cannot be a frank assessment of where things stand, militarily or politically, because the administration and its allies can no longer afford to have that assessment be negative or neutral — or even insufficiently positive.

The White House knows it's not enough if the report talks up the results of higher troop levels in Anbar province but admits the Maliki government in Baghdad has fallen apart. It's great for the general to say his tactics are working and Sunnis are turning on al-Qaida in Fallujah and Ramadi. But even that may not be good enough if the general and the ambassador also admit they see no progress on the political front.

After all, the surge is not for its own sake. Military success is meant to make possible a political solution. Otherwise it's all just a holding operation, one that will necessitate a large U.S. occupation force for years to come. And Petraeus may be too honest not to say so.

He is, after all, a professional soldier, as Crocker is a career diplomat. Whatever their loyalties to the boss, both men are thought to have personal integrity. This implies at least some independence. So while we should expect them to say much that the White House wants to hear, we should expect to hear other things, too.

If in fact we do, it will be hazardous for politicians in Iraq and in this country as well. That is why the White House wants to batten and couch it, to contain potential damage.

That is why many people believe the real "Petraeus report" is, in effect, already on display in Iraq itself — apparent to all willing to look. What we will see and hear next month from the general, the ambassador and all their collaborators will be something else.

Clemenceau would understand.

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