The political fireworks started early in the day when Moveon.org’s full page NY Times ad blared: “General Petraeus or General Betray us?” That set the stage for the day with Republican contenders weighing in and demonstrating the importance of foreign policy credentials in the GOP primary. Although none directly invoked their own credentials it was clear that each saw this as an opportunity to show he would be a credible chief executive.
Mitt Romney, who had been castigated by John McCain in last week’s debate on thee subject of the surge, saw an opening to flex his foreign policy bona fides. He released a statement early in the day which began: “As many have noted this morning, MoveOn.org’s latest outrageous act is an attempt to call into question the reputation and character of General Petraeus even before he testifies in front of Congress. As the Brookings Institution’s Michael O’Hanlon writes today, ‘General Petraeus is a straight shooter.’ Like the men he commands, he is risking his life to protect our freedoms here at home. We should not prejudge him or his testimony, or give him anything less than the full respect he deserves.” His communications team sent out emails portraying him in a face off with defeatist Democrats.
But other than calling for fair treatment of General Petraeus, where was he on the merits of the surge? Is there any daylight between him and McCain? Spokesman Kevin Madden tried to remove any doubt responding to our inquiry: “Governor Romney has been clear that he supports the troop surge as a way towards greater success in Iraq. Military commanders on the ground have been clear that they believe the surge is working and that any precipitous withdrawal would be unwise.”
Meanwhile, McCain who will be taken his No Surrender tour on the road to drum up support for the war also lambasted the Moveon.org ad. He went one step further, penning an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal with Senator Joe Lieberman, asserting that the Surge’s military successes had borne fruit. He wrote that “extremists have been marginalized, and moderates empowered. Thanks to this changed security calculus, the Sunni Arab community — which was largely synonymous with the insurgency a year ago — has been turning against al Qaeda from the bottom-up, and beginning to negotiate an accommodation with the emerging political order. Sustaining this political shift depends on staying the offensive against al Qaeda — which in turn depends on not stripping Gen. Petraeus of the manpower he and his commanders say they need.”
Fred Thompson, newcomer to the race, mimicked the press release of Romney, asserting: “MoveOn.org has today, in effect, said that the General leading our brave troops in Iraq is betraying his country. This is the group that funds the Democratic Party. I call upon the Democratic Party and all of the Democratic candidates for President to repudiate the libel of this patriotic American.” As to the substance of the report Thompson avoided specifics at a South Carolina campaign stop, remarking: “The whole world is watching to see whether or not we have the will and determination to do what is right. The most dangerous thing in the world that could happen to us today … is to appear weak and divided. That will be the most dangerous thing to our homeland that you can imagine.” Late in the day his campaign released a statement praising Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker and stating : “Gen. Petraeus’ report strengthens my conviction that we can achieve our objectives in Iraq and that we must not withdraw precipitously. He and Ambassador Crocker gave a candid assessment, and I believe Gen. Petraeus when he says that the security situation is improving and momentum is now on our side.”
However, the most noteworthy part of his day may have been his remarks at the same campaign stop about Osama Bin Laden. He may have inadvertently stepped on his lines by declaring in words reminiscent of Howard Dean (“I will have this old-fashioned notion that even with people like Osama, who is very likely to be found guilty, we should do our best not to, in positions of executive power, not to prejudge jury trials.”) that if we should we capture Osama Bin Laden, we “have due process to go through.”
As for Rudy Giuliani his statement was short and stern: “Today, General Petraeus provided the first look at a strategy that is getting results and an Iraq that is making progress. This is only the beginning, which is why we need to continue to listen to the assessment of General Petraeus and others on the ground so we can decide the best course of action going forward. The Democrats and MoveOn.org are doing a disservice to Iraq’s long-term future by jumping to political conclusions in advance of the General’s report. These times call for statesmen, not political rhetoric.” He will get further visibility this week at the 9-11 ceremonies, an opportunity to remind voters of the day which cemented many voters’ positive image of him.
Newt Gingrich took a different tactic in a speech before the American Enterprise Institute, arguing that a better 9-11 strategy would have avoided the necessity of an Iraq invasion. He indicated his support for Petraeus, but said Iraq should not be the sum of our efforts in the war against Islamic fascists. He opined: “The results are impressive and worthy of our continued support. Furthermore, on both moral and practical grounds it would be extraordinarily destructive for the American Congress to impose surrender and defeat on the United States by legislation which the enemy has been unable to impose by combat against our armed forces. No one should be under any illusions about the simple test for America in Iraq. At the end of the day are free people celebrating because the American people have sustained freedom against evil. Or, are violent, evil enemies of freedom celebrating because the Americans have been defeated? Life would be easier if there was a more modulated answer. There is not. In war there are winners and losers. If the American people will sustain this effort we will ultimately win. If the American politicians decide to legislate defeat, America will be defeated. Given that choice, we must support General Petraeus.”
So where does that leave the GOP contenders on Iraq? Clearly McCain hopes that his visible role will restore his presidential luster and convince primary voters of his readiness to be commander in chief. For Romney, the task is to assure voters that although he lacks McCain’s expertise he is a forceful advocate for America’s role in the battle against terrorists. Giuliani’s pitch is to remind voters that his leadership skills and understanding of America’s enemies are second to none. As for Thompson, he will need to avoid unforced errors, prove he can master the details and delineate a clear niche for himself on foreign policy. And finally, Newt Gingrich will always be there to remind us of the errors we have made — in this case a full time occupation.