In part one of our interview with Gareth Porter, Porter explains his discovery that Gen. David Petraeus, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and other US military leaders have been applying pressure on Obama to change his plan for US withdrawal from Iraq. It appears however that Obama is standing firm on his campaign promise to withdraw all combat troops within 16 months of his inauguration. According to Porter, the military has already begun its public relations campaign to paint recent events in Iraq in their favor, meanwhile setting Obama up for the fall in the future.


Story Transcript

Petraeus vs the President?

JESSE FREESTON (VOICEOVER), TRNN: In an electoral campaign that was criticized for its lack of concrete promises, one commitment that Barack Obama did make was to withdraw all US combat troops from Iraq within 16 months of taking office.

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BARACK OBAMA, US PRESIDENT: If you follow my plan to begin withdrawing troops and having our combat troops out in 16 months, we will have been there for 7 years. I think the American people understand that that has been a significant commitment, both of blood and of treasure.

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FREESTON: A recent article by Gareth Porter claims that mere hours into his presidency, Obama was visited by a contingent of military leaders led by General David Petraeus, who pressured him into backing off on his withdrawal plans. The Real News spoke to Gareth Porter about his findings.

GARETH PORTER, INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALIST AND HISTORIAN: My article tells the story of how Obama essentially shocked General David Petraeus, the commander of Central Command, with responsibility for the entire Middle East, by telling Petraeus and Gates and the commander now in Iraq, General Odierno, that he wanted them to go ahead and give him a plan, an operational plan, to get all US combat troops out of Iraq within 16 months—what he had been saying he wanted to do since the middle of the campaign last year. This took Petraeus and Gates and Odierno by surprise, apparently, because they had been under the impression that they could roll Obama, that he was not going to stand up to them. And this really goes back to part of the story that I tell, based on Bob Woodward’s book The War Within, where he quotes General Jack Keane. Keane was saying to Gates, and presumably to Petraeus as well, “Let’s keep Petraeus in the region, move him from the commander in Iraq to being CENTCOM commander, replace him with Odierno, and keep these people there, so that when a Democratic administration comes in, when and if a Democratic administration comes in, it’ll have to deal with Petraeus, with the huge prestige that it’s assumed Petraeus has in American politics, and the Democratic president will not dare to override Petraeus’s recommendation to keep the troops there.

FREESTON: This isn’t the first time that Obama has gone head-to-head with Petraeus over Iraq.

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Sept. 11, 2007
Gen. David Petraeus testimony
Senate Committee on Armed Forces

OBAMA: After devoting $1 trillion, which is what this thing optimistically will end up having cost; thousands of American lives; the creation of an environment in which al-Qaeda in Iraq could operate (because it didn’t exist prior to our invasion); that we have increased terrorist recruitment around the world; that Iran has been strengthened; that bin Laden and al-Qaeda are stronger than at any time since 2001; and that the process of Iraqi reconstruction and their standard of living would continue to be lower than it was pre-invasion; that if that had been the deal, I think most people would have said, “That’s a bad deal. That does not make sense. That does not serve the United States’ strategic interests.” And so I think that some of the frustration you hear from some of the questions is that we have now set the bar so low that modest improvement, in what was a completely chaotic situation, to the point where we just have the levels of intolerable violence that existed in June of 2006 is considered success. And it’s not. This continues to be a disastrous foreign policy mistake.

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PORTER: Last July, when he met with Petraeus in Baghdad, when he traveled there during the campaign, told Petraeus, you know, he heard him out, he heard his arguments that he should let the troops remain much longer than the 16 months, but he said, “Look, that’s your job, to keep the troops there as long as possible. My job as president is to take a broader strategic viewpoint, and I’m going to say, ‘I’m going to take a different view, that we need to pull those troops out within 16 months.’”

FREESTON: So now that Obama is in the Oval Office and following through on his promise, and in doing so, opposing the will of the military leadership, how is the military going to react to this?

PORTER: The second part of the story is—and the real important part of the story is that the military is not going to take that passively. What I have learned is that a number of generals, senior generals, retired and active duty, are now talking about how they can seed the storyline in the US media that Obama’s policy of 16-month withdrawal is too risky, that it will cause a collapse in Iraq, that the stability that they say that they have achieved there will be lost, and that it will be Obama’s fault. That’s the line that they are going to start feeding the people who cover the Pentagon in the media. And that was foreshadowed when Jack Keane appeared on the Lehrer NewsHour the very night of that meeting in the White House, January 21, the day after Obama was inaugurated, when he made that very argument that it’s too risky, it’s going to risk the political stability that we have achieved in Iraq with the US occupation.

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NewsHour with Jim Lehrer
January 21, 2009

JACK KEANE, RETIRED GENERAL, US ARMY: Given the hard-fought gains that we have made in Iraq over a strategy that was failing for three years, and a very dramatic turnaround in 18 months, and now we have an Arab Muslim state that elects its government and is allied with the United States, it wants a political relationship with us and not the Iranians in terms of being an ally, that is a major plus for us. No one wants to squander those gains. And that would be their concern. And force reduction is certainly an issue that’s on the table that they have concern about.

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PORTER: They have created this narrative, as many of us know very well, that Petraeus’s strategy and the surge in troops basically achieved this wonderful victory in Iraq by quieting things in the Sunni provinces and essentially defeating the Shiite militiamen loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr, whereas in fact we know that what really happened was it was the Iranians who intervened with the Shiites, with Muqtada al-Sadr, to convince him to stand down so that they could avoid civil war in Iraq between one Shiite group and another Shiite group, and protect their main interest, which is to stabilize the regime of al-Maliki, which is their ally in Baghdad. So it’s a false narrative, but they want to make sure that that is the narrative that will survive. But because of Obama’s policy now, what they want to do is to make the argument that Obama will be to blame after the troops come out, and inevitably there will be stories coming out about the Iraqi government is leaning towards Iran, and there will be new fighting between Shiites and Sunnis, inevitably.

DISCLAIMER:

Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.


Gareth Porter

Gareth Porter is a historian and investigative journalist on US foreign and military policy analyst. He writes regularly for Inter Press Service on US policy towards Iraq and Iran. Author of four books, the latest of which is Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam.