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Petraeus breezes through hearing

Senators rave about the general. His confirmation as commander in Afghanistan seems assured.

June 30, 2010|David S. Cloud

WASHINGTON — Army Gen. David H. Petraeus sees almost everything important in life as a contest of wills. His confirmation hearing Tuesday, however, was no contest at all.

Only minutes after the opening gavel, it was clear that the event would be a romp. No matter what their position on the war in Afghanistan, senators extolled his credentials and patriotism. Petraeus, meanwhile, expounded on counterinsurgency, usually without challenge.

Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) signaled early in the three-hour hearing that Petraeus would not have to worry about the Senate blocking his nomination to take command in Afghanistan.

"You're not allowed to presume confirmation, by the way," Levin said, explaining a Senate tradition. "But I am."

Laughter rippled through the packed hearing room.

Levin turned out to be right: The Senate committee voted to confirm Petraeus as the new U.S. military commander in Afghanistan late Tuesday, only hours after his testimony ended. The full Senate is to vote Wednesday.

Petraeus, credited with turning around U.S. fortunes in Iraq, has a stature unmatched by any military officer of his generation. It assured him of easy confirmation after President Obama named him last week to replace Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, who was ousted over disparaging comments about civilian officials in a Rolling Stone magazine article.

Petraeus was careful not to overstep his bounds, especially at a time when the White House is sensitive about generals who show up the president.

The atmosphere in the hearing room became giddy, and at one point Petraeus played down tensions between the military and Vice President Joe Biden over the strategy in Afghanistan. He revealed that, after meeting in the Oval Office with Obama, Biden pulled him aside to dismiss reports that he wants to shrink the U.S. military footprint in Afghanistan.

"The vice president grabbed me and said, 'You should know that I am 100% supportive of this policy,' " Petraeus told the committee. "And I said that I am reassured to hear that."

Biden was even going to dinner at Petraeus' house Tuesday to discuss the matter further, the general said.

By choosing Petraeus, Obama put in place one of the few military officers with the standing to match or even exceed that of Biden and other civilians in the debate next year over how quickly to draw down U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

Still, even Petraeus, with his finely tuned political instincts, could not completely quash signs of tension. In one revealing moment, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) got Petraeus to confirm that neither he nor anyone else in uniform had recommended the July 2011 deadline set by Obama for starting to bring troops home.

"General, at any time ... was there a recommendation from you or anyone in the military that we set a date of July 2011?" McCain asked.

"There was not," Petraeus said.

Petraeus emphasized his support for the deadline as a way to focus the attention of the Afghan government. And he said the pace of the drawdown would be determined by conditions in Afghanistan next year.

Petraeus also skipped lightly over tensions with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, whose relations with Washington have suffered periodic strains.

Petraeus said he had spoken with Karzai three times since his nomination, most recently by phone during the car ride Tuesday morning to Capitol Hill.

Despite the difficulties ahead, senators on both sides of the aisle welcomed Petraeus' willingness to return to commanding troops. It was a rare bipartisan consensus.

"You are an American hero," McCain said.

"You have my utmost respect for accepting this call," said Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.).

"I do admire you, unqualifiedly," Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) said.

Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) gave the general credit for defending not just his country but the entire planet. "Thanks to you, thanks to your family, for the great commitment that you continue to make to protect America, as well as literally the whole world."

Even the protesters sitting in the audience politely waited until a break in the proceedings before standing up and gently denouncing the war.

The only person at the hearing who received more plaudits than Petraeus was Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), who died early Monday. At Byrd's seat on the dais there was a white bouquet atop a black velvet cloth.

The atmosphere was quite a switch from Petraeus' appearance before Congress in 2007, during his time in command in Iraq. On that morning, a New York Times advertisement by opponents of the war mocked him as "General Betray Us." And he had to sit through hour after hour of sometimes harsh rhetoric, including from then-Sen. Barack Obama.

"This continues to be a disastrous foreign policy mistake," Obama said then of the war in Iraq, although he was careful to add that his criticism was not directed at Petraeus.

Petraeus later said he made it through that hearing on sheer willpower.

He didn't need anywhere near the same fortitude Tuesday.

david.cloud@latimes.com

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