WASHINGTON — Top military leaders at the Pentagon want to avoid a repeat of the last public assessment of the Iraq war -- with its relentless focus on the opinion of a single commander -- when the Bush administration makes its next crucial decision about the size of the U.S. force.
Concerned about the war's effect on public trust in the military, the leading officials said they hoped the next major assessment early next year would not place as much emphasis on the views of Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top American commander in Iraq, who in September spent dozens of hours in testimony before Congress and in televised interviews.
Defense officials believe his testimony succeeded in muting a congressional debate and in giving them breathing room for their counter-insurgency strategy, but at a potentially high cost. In addition to the burden on Petraeus, some officials believe, an incessant spotlight on one general risks politicizing the military and undermining the public's faith that military leaders will give honest assessments of the war's progress.
"This is not Dave Petraeus' war. This is George Bush's war," said one senior official, underscoring the military's view that its role is to carry out the decisions made by political leaders.
The senior official, like others interviewed for this article, spoke on condition of anonymity because the administration has not made final decisions about how next year's assessment, planned for March, will be presented.
Despite security improvements in Baghdad, Americans continue to hold deep reservations about the Iraq war. Some military leaders are worried that the unpopularity of the war has eroded public confidence in the military and in top military officials.
Although support for the military remains high, there is a basis for such concerns. An annual Gallup poll in June found that 69% of the public had confidence in the military, down from 82% in 2003.
In response, some officers are taking steps to shore up public support, saying that the military must be accountable for its actions and that officers must be apolitical and honest in their public comments.
Adm. Michael G. Mullen, the new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, released a formal letter of guidance that stressed the need for military leaders to preserve the confidence and support of the public.
"To the degree we allow ourselves to disconnect from [the American people], we allow the very foundation upon which our success rests to crumble," Mullen wrote. "Every action we take, every day, must be executed in a way that strengthens and sustains the public's trust and confidence in our ability and our integrity."
Next year's Iraq war assessment could be more crucial than the one in September. Officials have indicated that they plan to lay out their views on how quickly the number of troops in Iraq can be cut, possibly revealing the latest military thinking on the long-term size of the U.S. presence in Iraq.
And the assessment will occur as the nation's Democratic and Republican parties are in the politically charged process of selecting their presidential candidates, a time of particular sensitivity to any appearance of partisanship on the part of the military.
"You could make an argument that the March assessment is perhaps more important than the previous one," said a senior military official. "By the March assessment, we will know more as to how things are progressing. So that assessment will be absolutely key as to mapping the way ahead."
Although some Defense officials have expressed concerns that a "cult of personality" has developed around Petraeus, a larger number of officials make the argument that it is simply not fair to put the entire burden of the Iraq war on the general's shoulders.
"I would hope they wouldn't put anyone through what we put Petraeus through. I would hope next time, we would not have the same level of attention," said the senior military official.
Petraeus' high profile and close association with the policies of President Bush drew questions about the military's credibility on Iraq. In a survey taken before Petraeus testified in September, more than half of the respondents thought he would sugarcoat conditions in Iraq. An advertisement by the liberal group MoveOn.org, accusing Petraeus of misleading the public, resulted in a backlash as the general's popularity rose.
Another senior military official said the amount of focus on Petraeus' assessment was "over the top."
But since Petraeus' appearances before Congress, the Iraq war has commanded a little less attention, the second senior military official said, and the Pentagon hopes to keep it that way.
"The air has gone out of the Iraq balloon right now," the official said. "It would be a good idea if it stays out."
Still, Petraeus may agree with the advice to step out of the spotlight. Since September, he has seemed to keep a lower profile, and one military officer said Petraeus would be happy to avoid another marathon session before Congress.