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Playing the Petraeus card

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Photo - CIA Director nominee Gen. David Petraeus testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday,June 23, 2011, before the Senate Intelligence Committee during a hearing on his nomination.  (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)
CIA Director nominee Gen. David Petraeus testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday,June 23, 2011, before the Senate Intelligence Committee during a hearing on his nomination. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)
Politics,Beltway Confidential,Michael Barone

Who denied the Navy Seals’ pleas for help in Benghazi? Bill Kristol, in a Friday Weekly Standard blogpost entitled “Petraeus Throws Obama under the Bus,” noted that the CIA put out a statement that “No one at any level in the CIA told anybody not to help those in need; claims to the contrary are simply inaccurate.” Bill says that “presumably” this statement could not have been made without the express approval of CIA Director General David Petraeus and that we must conclude that Petraeus decided that he was not going to take the fall on this. It must have been someone higher up who did, Bill says, and concludes that President Obama must have given the order not to help.

 

I have often been asked why Mitt Romney did not attack the president and the administration on the Libya issue in the Oct. 22 debate. He knew that moderator Bob Schieffer was was likely to bring the subject up, and probably early, as he did. Romney could have easily have memorized a tick-tock of the dates on which the White House was informed that there was a militarized attack on Ambassador Chris Stevens and his colleagues and that there was no spontaneous demonstration protesting that terrible, terrible anti-Muslim video and the dates on which the president, the secretary of state, the president’s press secretary and the oddly-chosen-for-the-Sunday-talk-shows ambassador to the United Nations kept suggesting or stating that the attack resulted from a spontaneous demonstration. Bret Baier of Fox News has been keeping America particularly well informed on this.

 

Why didn’t Romney attack? My answer—suggested by no conversation with anyone in the Romney camp or with anyone at all—is that he feared that in response the Obama White House would bring into the argument the one relevant individual who hasn’t been heard from in public much or at all, the Director of the CIA, General Petraeus. There have been at least hints that the CIA provided some nugget of information suggesting there was a spontaneous demonstration and that the Obamaites cherry-picked this bit of information because it suited their political or psychological needs. Who could testify to the existence of such a bit of information? General Petraeus. The last thing the Romney campaign would ever want, I think, is several of the last days of the campaign to be taken up by an argument between Romney and Petraeus. Mainstream media, which has been striving to downplay this story lest it hurt Obama’s chances Nov. 6, would spotlight that argument with glee. The general promoted by George W. Bush taking on Mitt Romney! Delicious! Retired military officers who know Petraeus well have told me that he would have affirmed the existence of such a bit of information if it existed and if the president told him to. Obviously Petraeus has not wanted to comment on this issue in public. But it may have made good sense for Romney not to give Obama an opportunity to play the Petraeus card and instead to talk repeatedly of “tumult” and “chaos” in the Middle East and around the world. Libya seems to have eliminated Obama’s advantage over Romney in poll questions on who would handle foreign policy better, even though Romney has no foreign policy experience at all. Romney evidently chose to build on that general advantage rather than engage in a tick-tock debate in which he might be pitted against Petraeus.

 

But now, as Kristol points out, Petraeus has made a statement in public, at least through his spokesman, and one that is not helpful to the president. Why would he do that? I suspect it has to do with the warrior’s ethic of not leaving a fellow soldier behind. I am told that that is a very strong ethic indeed. It is something a civilian commander can sometimes do honorably, in the broad national interest of which he has been chosen by the people to be the judge. But it does not seem to be something that a solider, even a retired soldier like General Petraeus, believes he could honorably do. And he doesn’t want anybody, now or when it comes time for his obituary to be written, to think that he has done so. If President Obama is shoved under the bus, so be it. Honor, as James Bowman has written and as George Washington and so many Founders believed, is paramount.

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