Petraeus and Obama

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Christy Bowe / Corbis

General David Petraeus attends his confirmation hearing for CIA Director at the Hart Senate Office Building in Washington D.C., June 23, 2011

Mark Benjamin landed a good zing on General David Petraeus yesterday by flagging the 450-word cloud that resulted when the general was asked during Senate testimony whether he supports Obama’s troop-withdrawal decision. It was something of an artful dodge. But it also contained some important truth.

The fact is that it’s perfectly natural for a president to disagree with his generals. The job of the military is to come up with a feasible plan that maximizes the odds of success. David Petraeus is tasked with hammering the Taliban and smiting al-Qaeda in Afghanistan–not worrying about the budget deficit, or public opinion, or support in Congress, or allowing resources for terrorist-hunting around the world (though I’m sure this last point is never far from his mind). President Obama’s job is to prioritize the country’s many competing goals and needs. He may not be taking a maximalist position on global-warming policy, for instance. But he is balancing the alarms sounded by his environmental advisors with the realities of Congress, and the delicate economy, and our diplomacy with developing nations like China. As Petraeus rightly put it yesterday, “there are broader considerations than those of the military commander.”

Nevertheless, expect to hear Petraeus’ name cross the lips of the Republican presidential candidates quite a lot in the coming months, particularly if the war effort turns bad. Tim Pawlenty and Mitt Romney, among others, are already using his revered name as a kind of club against Obama, making the case that the president is assuming too much risk in Afghanistan. After a tepid first statement Wednesday night, Romney sharpened his critique of Obama’s decision yesterday afternoon.

Also see Toby Harnden on Petraeus’ explanation to Democratic Senator Carl Levin of why he’s not resigning, as the general says some people have urged him to do. Among other things, Petraeus said, “I’m not a quitter.”