Political Concerns Frame Petraeus Report

The U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, goes before Congress to give his assessment of the U.S. troop surge. Democrats want a troop withdrawal and may compromise with Republicans to get it done.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.

Today, General David Petraeus offers his assessment of Iraq to lawmakers who've already had plenty of time to come up with their own assessments.

Senator HILLARY CLINTON (Democrat, New York; Presidential Candidate): We need to quit refereeing their civil war and bring our troops home as soon as possible.

INSKEEP: That's Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. And here's Republican presidential candidate John McCain.

Senator JOHN McCAIN (Republican, Arizona; Presidential Candidate): This new strategy is only been in effect for a relatively short period of time.

Unidentified Man: But the goal...

Sen. McCAIN: So I understand their frustration and anger. I want us out too. But I want us out with honor.

INSKEEP: Just two of the many points of view about Iraq.

Joining us now for some analysis is NPR's Cokie Roberts.

Cokie, good morning.

COKIE ROBERTS: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: To what extent are lawmakers and presidential candidates, for that matter, trying to prepare the ground for whatever Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker say?

ROBERTS: Well, a lot. And what they're expected to say is to get a few troops out and keep most of them there and come back in six months. The administration has been saying, look, this is a top-career military officer, a top-career diplomat - they are coming to give their independent assessments of the situation.

The Democrats are saying, no, that's not true. This is Bush's report, not Petraeus' report.

And you have, today, the liberal activist group moveon.org, with a full-page ad in the New York Times, saying General Petraeus or General Betray-us cooking the books for the White House. So they will be keeping the pressure on the Democrats to support a fast time certain pullout.

INSKEEP: And we should mention, we're discussing elsewhere in the program the actual security situation in Iraq. And we'll be discussing over the coming days the substance of what people have to say. What we're talking about right now is the politics of all this. And I have to ask if there is a danger at all for Democrats in going after this report too hard.

ROBERTS: Sure, there is. And there's a danger and appearing to be attacking a military man - a decorated general. The New York Times poll that's out today on the subject of Iraq says that the American people trust the military most of any institution to solve this war and get us out.

And at a time when the Democrats are not getting particularly high marks in these polls, the ABC/Washington Post poll, yesterday, and today, New York Times/CBS poll - big polls on the subject - the confidence of the public in the Democrats to deal with the war in both is down from where it was in the spring. Now some of that could be because there are some people who feel Democrats haven't been able to pay us a pullout. But some also seems to reflect nuances in responses to the war.

The key one today, Steve, in the New York Times poll is asked - and it's a very complicated question - but, basically, it's a troop withdrawal. And the majority says withdraw some troops but leave some to train Iraqi forces, to conduct raids against terrorist groups. And then people are split evenly on whether to withdraw troops immediately, no matter what, or keep the same number of troops there and try to win the war.

So it's a much more nuanced response than we've seen in the past.

INSKEEP: Well, once everybody finishes talking about this, this week, is Congress likely to do anything?

ROBERTS: I think that we've already seen the Democrats coming back from recess, talking about compromise with the Republicans on all of this. And, of course, there's worse news for Republicans in these polls than there is for Democrats in terms of confidence in them. In the New York Times poll only five percent most trust the Bush administration to resolve the war. But the Republicans are not feeling the same kind of heat as they might have been expected to feel at the end of this recess to pull out now.

The Democrats are going to feel that heat but - as I sited the MoveOn ad - and that's going to continue to be true in the Democratic base, and the Democratic presidential candidates are going to continue to feel that heat. But their responses have also become somewhat more nuanced, Steve, about how and when to get the troops out of Iraq.

INSKEEP: Okay, thanks very much. Analysis as we get every Monday from NPR's Cokie Roberts.

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