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Relationships of Presidents and Generals Discussed

September 13, 2007 at 6:25 PM EDT

MARGARET WARNER: Has there ever been a battlefield general who played such a pivotal role for his president as General Petraeus did this week? To explore that, we turn to Thomas Keaney, executive director of the Foreign Policy Institute at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. He’s a retired Air Force colonel. And NewsHour regular Ellen Fitzpatrick, professor of American history at the University of New Hampshire.

Welcome to both of you.

Tom Keaney, have we ever seen a situation as we saw this week in which there was such attention focused on a battlefield commander that the president himself said he was waiting for the assessment of that commander before he went to the country with his own way forward?

THOMAS KEANEY, Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies: Frankly, no, we have no real precedent for that. We have examples of generals who have had prominent political roles, but none that was tied so much with the administration strategy, where General Petraeus actually becomes the voice of that strategy.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you agree, Ellen Fitzpatrick, no real precedence in terms of the public role that he has taken?

ELLEN FITZPATRICK, University of New Hampshire: I think it is true, specifically speaking, but more broadly, in 1967, Lyndon Johnson employed General William Westmoreland very similarly during the Vietnam War. And the parallels are interesting, because in August of 1967, for the first time, public opinion polls showed that a slim majority of the public didn’t feel that the war was going well, that we were winning the war.

And Johnson began a concerted campaign — it was an ongoing one — to try to shape public opinion. He called Westmoreland back from Vietnam. And in the fall, Westmoreland gave a speech before Congress, he appeared on “Meet the Press” with the ambassador to Vietnam, Ellsworth Bunker, to make the case that there was light at the end of the tunnel, that the enemy was weakening.

He even suggested that we might be able to draw down troops before long. And, of course, a couple of months later, the Tet Offensive occurred.

The commander as a personality

MARGARET WARNER: But, Tom Keaney, there's another new interesting wrinkle to this that I don't think was in play with the Westmoreland case which is Petraeus' report and appearance was, in fact, demanded by Congress, which essentially put it in legislation and demanded that, by September 15th, he -- not the secretary of defense, not the head of the Joint Chiefs -- come report. What does that say?

THOMAS KEANEY: Well, exactly right. And that says two things to me. First of all, up until now, if you had to have a voice on what the strategy was, it would have been the prior secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs by his side. But now it becomes the commander in the theater as a personality, not just as a position. There have been several other commanders, but none have had quite the same importance as General Petraeus.

Perhaps the closest analog is General Westmoreland, but there's a crucial difference. At the time of 1967, there was nowhere near the fear that we were actually going to lose that war. That came later. And Westmoreland could be relieved without causing a great stir within the country, as he was a year later.

At this point, I think the administration has tied themselves to General Petraeus. And that happens when -- particularly in wartime -- when the commander looks like he's losing. It's ironic that you'd think you'd want to change the commander, but the effect on the public of firing a commander at that time is even more dangerous.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Ellen Fitzpatrick, we also have a situation in this case in which the president's own credibility seems to rest on the general's credibility, at least in the eyes of the public and the Congress. Now, was that the case with Westmoreland and Johnson?

ELLEN FITZPATRICK: I think, in a way, the current president is playing a high card, because part of what he's capitalizing on is what public opinion polls show is a very high regard in the United States for the American military, and particularly a very strong confidence in their integrity, their capacity to tell the truth. There has been, of course, criticism of Petraeus in this regard, but generally there is high confidence in the military.

In 1967 when Westmoreland appeared, there was also considerable confidence, but it was eroding. And I think part of what we're looking at here, you know, is the tail wagging the dog. Johnson employed Westmoreland to support a strategy and a set of policies and a position that he himself was aggressively pursuing to make the public case for. In this case, we're seeing almost a deference to the general that the president will wait upon him.

A new general, a last chance

MARGARET WARNER: Now, if we go back to what got General Petraeus into this position in the first place, namely, you had -- this is not unprecedented, is it, Tom Keaney, that you have a war that's going badly, that there have been, in the eyes of many, at least, miscalculations, what Zbigniew Brzezinski just call strategic blunders, and that a president brings a new general in, and it's sort of a last chance to make the war a success.

THOMAS KEANEY: Yes, I think that's exactly right.

MARGARET WARNER: Give us some examples. I mean, wouldn't you say it goes back to the Civil War, even?

THOMAS KEANEY: Well, the Civil War, when President Lincoln brings in General Grant to take over as commander of the Union Army, that's a similar case. That is, Lincoln has finally found his general, Grant, and he probably has no alternative. If Grant fails, he has no alternative to pick someone to replace Grant.

That said, the president keeps a very close eye on Grant. He sends people down into his camp to continue to assess him. I think that General Petraeus, even more so than General Grant, is now the face of the strategy. And there's really no fallback. Congress wanted to hear from him because they did not trust to hear the secretary of defense any longer, for instance.

MARGARET WARNER: Ellen, can you think of other examples in which a new general is asked to essentially pull a rabbit out of a hat?

ELLEN FITZPATRICK: I think it was not uncommon during the Vietnam War. Westmoreland after the Tet Offensive, which appeared to give the lie -- and this is something to recall -- that within two months of having been deployed by the Johnson administration to make the case to the American people about the success of the war, the Tet Offensive occurred, it was, in fact, not a military defeat for the United States, but it appeared to be one because of the contradiction between the two.

Then, Westmoreland was relieved of his command. Abrams takes over, and he's in the position of trying to make the case for the American cause in Vietnam.

So it happens often. The question is, you know, how persuasive are they? And is this, in our system, which constitutionally puts the president in charge, we have civilian control of the military, should the military be placed in this position?

Pressures on the general

MARGARET WARNER: Speaking of being placed in a position, a final thought from you, Tom Keaney, as a former military man yourself. What kind of position does this put a battlefield commander in to be, essentially, called back and asked to assume this leading political role in the sense of salesman role?

I mean, when General Petraeus was here last night with Jim, he said, you know, all the impatience and frustration he heard was part of a heavy rucksack that they all carry back in Iraq. Is there a down side, in terms of the effectiveness of the battlefield commander when he's asked to take this roll?

THOMAS KEANEY: It's certainly a down side, but there's no choice. And under the conditions, there's no way around it. This kind of war, even more so than Vietnam, an insurgency in general is just such a political war that you cannot disentangle the military competence from the understanding of the political atmosphere. That was clear from what General Petraeus said.

Therefore, there's no way that General Petraeus can leave it at the fact that, "Here's what I think militarily will work." I think everyone heard him say that, "I know what I can do militarily, but this is a political solution," and he just can't avoid addressing that, as he had to when he testified before Congress.

MARGARET WARNER: Thanks so much, Thomas Keaney and Ellen Fitzpatrick.