Tauscher grills Petraeus on Iraq withdrawal

tauscher2.jpgRep. Ellen Tauscher, D-Alamo, as the Bay Area’s only member of the House Armed Services Committee (and chair of its Strategic Forces Subcommittee), got to ask questions today of U.S. Army Gen. David Petraeus — our top military officer in Iraq — and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker on the status of the war and political developments.

I’m still trying to find a video clip, but the Washington Independent has this account:

Asked by Ellen Tauscher, a California Democrat, what he would say to a new president who asked for a withdrawal plan within 60 days of taking office, Petraeus dodged like hell. Wow.

“I would back up,” he said, “and ask what’s the mission, what’s the desired endstate. And then you advise on resources…” Tauscher said the goal would be to keep the security gains of the surge, fix the readiness problems of the military and cut U.S. costs in Iraq.

“My response would be dialogue on what the risks would be. And, again, this is about risk.” Petraeus sounded a lot like he was saying he would not be willing to advise a President Obama or a President Clinton on withdrawal — something that, unless he was willing to resign, is very Constitutionally dubious.

Seemingly aware of that, he added quickly, “Let me state up front that I absolutely support the idea of civilian control of the military. We do not work for ourselves. We take orders, and we follow them. What we want to do is have dialogue about the mission — what the endstate is — and then provide an assessment of a commander on the ground [as to] what the resources provided are … [I have] sworn an oath to the Constitution and the concept of civilian control.”

This is huge. Notice Petraeus still didn’t say he would do what his commander-in-chief asked: submit a plan for withdrawal if ordered, or resign if he was unable to.

And Politico blogger John Bresnahan had it this way:

Petraeus and Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D-Calif.) engaged in an interesting exchange. Tauscher pushed Petraeus and Crocker to tell the committee how they would respond to a new president taking office in January 2009 who wants to pull U.S. forces out of Iraq.

“We are not self-employed,” Petraeus reminded the California Democrat, adding that he has “sworn an oath to uphold” – civilian control of the military, so he cannot make policy, only execute it.

Petraeus added that he would “talk about risk” with the new commander-in-chief and others “in the chain of command,” but in the end, he would carry out his orders.

Petraeus’ answer explains succinctly why Democrats have such a hard time scoring political points in these hearings – Petraeus and Crocker portray themselves as insturments of President Bush’s policy rather than the deciders of that policy. Therefore, if Democrats have problems with those policies, they have to take it up with the White House, not career military and Foreign Service officers.

The answer is a good one politically, and it blunts many lines of attack the Democrats may have, but it is slightly disingenuous. Petraeus has the ear of the president, if media reports (including The Washington Post) are to be believed. Thus, what he says and recommends carries great weight in the Oval Office. Crocker is one of the most experienced and respected diplomats the country has, especially on Middle Eastern issues, so his viewpoint also is much more important than a mere title suggests.

Josh Richman

Josh Richman covers state and national politics for the Bay Area News Group. A New York City native, he earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri and reported for the Express-Times of Easton, Pa. for five years before coming to the Oakland Tribune and ANG Newspapers in 1997. He is a frequent guest on KQED Channel 9’s “This Week in Northern California;” a proud father; an Eagle Scout; a somewhat skilled player of low-stakes poker; a rather good cook; a firm believer in the use of semicolons; and an unabashed political junkie who will never, EVER seek elected office.