WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- With the decision announced yesterday to elevate Gen. David Petraeus to lead the U.S. Central Command and Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno to succeed Petraeus as the top commander in Iraq, the Bush administration laid the groundwork for the next president with a pair of generals who have spoken sternly about Iran and cautioned against pulling out of Iraq too quickly.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said that Petraeus, who has been given much of the credit for the sharp drop in violence in Iraq, is "the best man for the job" to succeed Adm. William Fallon as the top commander overseeing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as 25 other nations that fall under Centcom's watch.
Gates said Petraeus' expertise in fighting "asymmetric warfare," the military term used to describe the fight against terrorists and other irregular combatants, will be useful on the new job. He also lauded Odierno, who just returned home two months ago after serving 15 months in Iraq as the No. 2 commander, for his commitment and knowledge of Iraq.
While Pentagon officials painted Petraeus as an obvious choice, Democrats telegraphed that the four-star general will face tough questions at his Senate confirmation hearing about how the administration's Iraq policy - one to which he is closely tied - is preventing the U.S. military from placing more troops and greater focus on Afghanistan.
"General Petraeus' mission will no longer be just Iraq - it will be the entire region, including the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area where those who actually attacked us on 9/11 have regrouped, where our ambassador to Iraq acknowledged to me that al-Qaida is a bigger threat and where we do not have enough troops because of Iraq," said Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., the Delaware Democrat who is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "Congress must ensure that General Petraeus does not bring an Iraq bias to his new job, at the expense of America's broader security needs."
Petraeus' predecessor at Centcom, Fallon, abruptly resigned last month after 41 years of military service. Fallon's views on Iran and the region in general had sometimes conflicted with the Bush administration's.
When he appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee earlier this month, Petraeus accused Iran of "funding, training, arming and directing" Shiite militias that U.S. officials have come to call special groups. Upon returning from his recent tour, Odierno said that Iranian influence remains "what I worry about most."
"I think we have to keep the pressure on them," Odierno told reporters last month. "What they ought to stop doing is training surrogates, funding surrogates and supplying weapons to them, which they are still doing today."
Gates called on the Armed Services Committee to complete confirmation proceedings by Memorial Day, and Sen. Carl Levin, the Michigan Democrat who is chairman of the committee, has assured Gates that he will call the hearings promptly.
Petraeus is sure to face hard questions about the cost the nearly 30,000-troop "surge" in Iraq has had on the U.S. mission in Afghanistan. It is a question that he has been able to dodge thus far as the senior officer on the ground in Iraq.
Both Fallon and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have expressed concern that the continued large troop presence in Iraq has come at the expense of a stretched U.S. military being unable to significantly bolster troop numbers in Afghanistan.
When asked during his recent visit to Washington about the need for more troops in Afghanistan, Petraeus demurred, saying that Afghanistan was out of his purview. At the same time, he indicated that precipitous troop reductions from Iraq could lead to a reversal of the security gains that the surge has brought.
Democrats have argued that the fight in Afghanistan is more crucial to broader U.S. national security concerns than the battle in Iraq. Some, including the party's two presidential contenders, Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, have contended that maintaining extraordinary troop levels in Iraq has led to deteriorating security in Afghanistan.
"I don't know how he's going to square the circle," Rep. Ellen O. Tauscher, a California Democrat, said of Petraeus. "We either are going to continue to get the same type of group-think policy we've been hearing from General Petraeus, or General Petraeus is going to find out that he's got bigger responsibilities."
Lawrence Korb, a senior fellow at the liberal Center for American Progress and former assistant defense secretary in the Reagan administration, said the question is whether Petraeus will be "willing to move troops from Iraq to Afghanistan? I think it puts Petraeus in an impossible position."
The timing of Petraeus' nomination was somewhat unexpected but ultimately was pushed ahead by Fallon's abrupt resignation. Gates had previously said he expected Petraeus to remain in Iraq until the end of the year.
Before yesterday's announcement, many inside the Pentagon predicted that Petraeus, who holds a doctorate in international relations from Princeton, would be nominated to head the European Command or would be chosen to take command of NATO. Others thought it was plausible that he would succeed Fallon at Centcom.
Aamer Madhani writes for the Chicago Tribune.