Gen. David H. Petraeus’ visit to Washington this week, his first high-profile tour of the capital since handing over command in Iraq, has had the feel of a victory lap in the midst of an ongoing race.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice presented him the State Department’s highest honor. He was hailed at the conservative Heritage Foundation as “the right man in the right place and at the right time.” And a former Army chief compared him to Alexander the Great, slicing the Gordian Knot of Iraq.
Through it all, Petraeus appeared almost sheepish, insisting that the accolades belonged to his troops and joking that he wished his parents were around to hear the praise.
“My dad would have enjoyed it, and my mother might have even believed it,” Petraeus said.
Between the encomiums and the occasional laughter, however, Petraeus spent the week presenting a much more sober view of Iraq than most of those lauding him.
Armed with his trademark charts and graphs, he said that Iraq has improved dramatically since last summer, with violence dropping to its lowest levels since early 2004.
But he also argued that things could still go wrong.
One of the slides he presented at both Heritage and a gathering of current and retired Army officers had 10 “potential storm clouds” -- complete with yellow lightning bolts shooting from 10 gray shapes -- that could upend recent gains.
“This progress is a little less fragile, if you will, and a little more durable” than when he testified before his confirmation hearing in May, Petraeus said.
“But that is very heavily qualified by noting that there are enormous difficulties that Iraq still has to deal with.”
Petraeus’ cautious view, a hallmark of his command, contrasts with the suggestions of imminent victory from those around him and has set the U.S. course for nearly two years.
As one of the last acts of his tour in Iraq, for example, Petraeus pushed to keep nearly 140,000 troops in Iraq through the middle of next year over the wishes of some Pentagon leaders who wanted a faster rate of withdrawals.
Petraeus is taking over U.S. Central Command, the headquarters for all U.S. forces in the Middle East and central Asia, at the end of the month, meaning his views will influence the next presidential administration.
Some within the Pentagon think the move to Centcom will moderate Petraeus’ views on troop levels in Iraq, particularly once he sees the risks faced by allied forces in eastern and southern Afghanistan. No additional U.S. troops can be sent to Afghanistan without a corresponding reduction in Iraq.
“They say where you stand depends on where you sit, and so I’ll be interested to have that conversation with him later on when he’s responsible for both places,” said Gen. James T. Conway, commandant of the Marine Corps, at a recent news conference.
The extent of Petraeus’ clout will depend, of course, on the winner in November. Democrat Barack Obama has acknowledged that during a July visit to Iraq, he pressed Petraeus to consider faster deployments to Afghanistan.
Republican John McCain, on the other hand, indicated during Tuesday night’s presidential debate that he’d give the general a largely free hand when it comes to setting strategy in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and said the two have already discussed Petraeus’ plans for Afghanistan.
“I’ve had conversations with him,” McCain said. “It’s the same overall strategy” as Iraq.
Petraeus did not respond to a request to comment on his contacts with McCain or Obama about troop deployments. Still, the storm clouds described by Petraeus were varied and, in several cases, potentially combustible. In one, the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government has been slow to incorporate defense militias composed of former Sunni insurgents into mainstream Iraqi security units.
“This has been difficult, and I think you’d have to understand, if you walked a mile in [the Shiites’] shoes, why it’s difficult,” Petraeus said at Heritage.
“These were people that were shooting at them, shooting at us. They have our blood on their hands, in some cases. But again, this is how you end these kinds of conflicts.”
Petraeus also cited the uncertain fate of Kirkuk, the oil-rich northern city where competition between Kurds, Arabs and Turkmens has inflamed tensions, as a potential flash point for future violence.
More immediate are concerns about millions of displaced Iraqis returning to their homes, some of which have been occupied for years by rival sectarian groups.
Petraeus also pointed to expected January provincial elections, where previously disenfranchised Sunnis in western and northern Iraq, as well as bitterly opposed Shiite factions in the south, are competing over political spoils through increasingly powerful regional councils.
Almost all previous Iraqi elections have seen spikes in violence, and U.S. military officials believe the January elections could be the most consequential to date.