Wash. Post, USA Today uncritically reported Petraeus troop withdrawal recommendation; ignored constraints on military

››› ››› BEN ARMBRUSTER

In articles on President Bush's expected endorsement of Gen. David Petraeus' recommendation to begin drawing down U.S. troops from Iraq in early 2008, The Washington Post and USA Today uncritically reported that "White House aides" said "the president plans to emphasize that he is in a position to order troop cuts only because of the success achieved on the ground in Iraq," and that, according to "senior administration officials," "[t]he final number [of troops withdrawn] will be based on security conditions at the time." But Petraeus himself has stated that "active brigade combat teams were going to come out of" Iraq anyway and that "the strain on the force ... was very much one that informed the recommendations."

Reporting that President Bush is expected to "endorse" Gen. David Petraeus' recommendation to begin withdrawing nearly 30,000 U.S. troops from Iraq in early 2008, a September 12 Washington Post article uncritically reported that "White House aides" said "the president plans to emphasize that he is in a position to order troop cuts only because of the success achieved on the ground in Iraq." Similarly, in a September 12 article, USA Today reported that, according to "senior administration officials," "[t]he final number [of troops withdrawn] will be based on security conditions at the time." But neither article mentioned that during his September 11 testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Petraeus stated that the "active brigade combat teams were going to come out of" Iraq anyway and that, during his testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee the same day, he said that "the strain on the force ... was very much one that informed the recommendations" to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq. Petraeus' testimony echoed statements he and members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff have made in the past about the need to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq regardless of the situation there, as Media Matters for America has noted. By contrast, on the September 11 edition of CNN's The Situation Room, White House correspondent Ed Henry reported that "the president [is] likely to bill this as a success, get some political credit for bringing these troops home. But it's important to stress, as you know, that military officials have already suggested that they're stretched and these surged troops would have to come home by next spring -- next summer anyway."

From the Post article:

White House aides said they are working on a 20-minute prime-time speech that Bush will give tomorrow night, in which he will endorse the main elements of the strategy outlined by Petraeus and Crocker on Capitol Hill this week.

They said the president plans to emphasize that he is in a position to order troop cuts only because of the success achieved on the ground in Iraq, and that he is not being swayed by political opposition. Aides said that he plans to outline once again what he sees as the dire consequences of failure in Iraq and that he will make the troop cuts conditional on continued military gains.

From the USA Today article:

President Bush plans to endorse Thursday night a proposal by the top U.S. military commander in Iraq to gradually withdraw up to 30,000 American troops by next summer, senior administration officials said. Top Democrats vowed to push for quicker and deeper cuts.

The final number will be based on security conditions at the time, said the officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because the content of Bush's address to the nation is not final. The president will speak [at] 9 p.m. ET Thursday.

These articles did not note that, during his September 11 Senate Foreign Relations Committee testimony, Petraeus said that he would have recommended withdrawing "the active brigade combat teams" in Iraq, and when Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI) suggested that "Reserve and National Guard forces are not available to replace those troops," Petraeus responded, "I think that's the case, but I don't know because I have not asked." From the committee hearing:

REED: General Petraeus, have you ever recommended or requested the extension of tours to 18 months or the accelerated deployment of Guard or Reserve forces?

PETRAEUS: I've certainly never recommended extension beyond 15 months. In fact, [Lt.] General [Raymond] Odierno [commanding general of Multi-National Force-Iraq] and I put out a letter that said, I mean, unless things got completely out of control, that we would not even think of extending beyond 15 months.

REED: Having done that, doesn't that virtually lock you into a recommendation of reducing troops by 30,000 beginning in April and extending through the summer -- regardless of what's happening on the ground?

PETRAEUS: Depending -- except -- depending on what can be taken out of the Reserves. Again, I don't know what is available in the National Guard and the Reserves. I do know that the active Army in particular, that the string does run out for the Army to meet the year-back criteria. Now what we have done, of course, as I mentioned Senator, is actually, in fact, to take some elements out short of their 15-month mark because of our assessment of the situation.

REED: I understand that, and I think basically my sense is that the overriding constraint you face is not what is happening on the ground in Iraq, but the reality that unless you did recommend, request, and succeed, that unless tours were extended, 30,000 troops were coming out of there beginning in April next year, regardless of the situation on the ground.

PETRAEUS: Again, certainly the active brigade combat teams were going to come out of there. Again, I am not aware of what is available in terms of battalions, brigades, or what have you ...

REED: My sense is the Reserve and National Guard forces are not available to replace them.

PETRAEUS: I think that's the case, but I don't know because I have not asked.

Additionally, during the Armed Services Committee hearing, Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA) said that extending tours of duty to 15 months "violates everything that I've ever heard about from the day I was born being around the United States military." Petraeus then responded that "the strain on the force, again, was very much one that informed the recommendations" to draw down U.S. troops from Iraq. From the hearing:

WEBB: Here's the difficulty I have and it's the reason I put this amendment into the system. When the Army went to 15 months General Casey, as chief of staff, called me to inform me and I said, "How can you do this? How can you cause people to serve 15 month deployments with the supposed good news that they're going to get 12 months at home? It just violates everything that I've ever heard about from the day I was born being around the United States military." He said, "We feed the strategy. They tell us the number of people that they need and we feed the strategy." And then from the strategic side it's, "We build the strategy and they feed us the troops." And somewhere in here in my view there has to be the notion that after four and a half years in Iraq we need to be shaping the operational environment to the well being on a floor for our troops.

PETRAEUS: Senator, that is, as I mentioned, that is something that very much informed my recommendation. In fact, as I mentioned several of the brigades will in fact come out before the 15 month mark because of the way that we will be withdrawing brigades without replacement. And the strain on the force, again, was very much one that informed the recommendations that I have made. And it will inform the recommendations that I have made for the point beyond which we've already made recommendations on.

Moreover, the Associated Press reported on August 19 that "the Army has nearly exhausted its fighting force and its options if the Bush administration decides to extend the Iraq buildup beyond next spring," which "presents the Pentagon with several painful choices if the U.S. wants to maintain higher troop levels beyond the spring of 2008: Using National Guard units on an accelerated schedule. Breaking the military's pledge to keep soldiers in Iraq for no longer than 15 months," and "[b]reaching a commitment to give soldiers a full year at home before sending them back to war." The article quoted Gen. George Casey, U.S. Army chief of staff, as saying that "[t]he demand for our forces exceeds the sustainable supply":

When asked what units will fill the void in the coming spring if any need to be replaced, officials give a grim shake of the head, shrug of the shoulders or a palms-up, empty-handed gesture.

"The demand for our forces exceeds the sustainable supply," the Army chief of staff, Gen. George Casey, said last week. "Right now we have in place deployment and mobilization policies that allow us to meet the current demands. If the demands don't go down over time, it will become increasingly difficult for us to provide the trained and ready forces" for other missions.

Numerous other media outlets -- including The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal, the AP, and ABC's World News -- also reported Bush's expected acceptance of Petraeus' Iraq withdrawal proposal without mentioning that the additional troops sent to Iraq as part of Bush's troop increase strategy would have to be withdrawn, although, unlike the Post and USA Today, they did not report that Petraeus or others in the administration had explicitly tied the withdrawal to "success" or "security conditions" in Iraq.

Despite the AP's previous reporting, its September 12 article did not mention "the painful choices" the military would face if the drawdown did not occur:

President Bush will tell the nation Thursday evening that he plans to reduce the American troop presence in Iraq by as many as 30,000 by next summer but will condition those and further cuts on continued progress, The Associated Press has learned.

[...]

In the speech, the president will say he understands Americans' deep concerns about U.S. involvement in Iraq and their desire to bring the troops home, they said. Bush will say that, after hearing from Petraeus and Crocker, he has decided on a way forward that will reduce the U.S. military presence but not abandon Iraq to chaos, according to the officials.

[...]

Petraeus recommended that a 2,000-member Marine unit return home this month without replacement. That would be followed in mid-December with the departure of an Army brigade numbering 3,500 to 4,000 soldiers. Under the general's plan, another four combat brigades would be withdrawn by July 2008.

That could leave the U.S. with as few as 130,000-135,000 troops in Iraq, down from about 168,000 now, although Petraeus was not precise about whether all the about 8,000 support troops sent with those extra combat forces would be withdrawn by July.

Petraeus said he foresaw even deeper troop cuts beyond July, but he recommended that Bush wait until at least March to decide when to go below 130,000 -- and at what pace.

Additionally, other media outlets reported on Petraeus' recommendation and Bush's anticipated endorsement of it without mentioning that the drawdown was likely to occur anyway. For example:

From the September 12 New York Times article:

In responding to General Petraeus's recommendations, the White House said President Bush would address the nation at 9 p.m. on Thursday. He is expected to endorse the call for no more than a gradual troop reduction in coming months, one that would leave some 130,000 American troops in Iraq by next summer.

[...]

The recommendation by General Petraeus calls for the step-by-step withdrawal between now and next July of the 30,000 additional troops that Mr. Bush has sent to Iraq as part of what has been called a "surge" in forces, which he announced in January. But that leaves open the question that permeated the heated discussions in the Senate on Tuesday, about whether keeping the remaining 130,000 troops would serve a purpose.

[...]

It was also clear that, unless Mr. Bush includes a surprise in his Thursday speech, the strategy for the remaining troops will be a familiar one. The planned level of about 130,000 troops by next July is about the same level as was in Iraq in February. When asked about changes in the troops' mission, General Petraeus said their approach would be only "slightly modified."

From the September 12 Los Angeles Times article:

In appearances before two Senate committees Tuesday, Gen. David H. Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker faced much harsher and pointed questioning than they did a day earlier in a visit to the House, where lawmakers focused on plans for winding down the U.S. troop buildup.

By Tuesday, it was clear that although such a drawdown would remove the nearly 30,000 reinforcements by next summer, it would leave 130,000 troops in Iraq, a force size that troubled both Republicans and Democrats.

Especially concerned were GOP senators who face reelection next year. They seemed worried by the increasing likelihood that there would be little political progress in Iraq and high levels of U.S. troops there come election day 2008.

President Bush plans an address to the nation Thursday evening, in which he is expected to embrace Petraeus' recommendations.

From the September 12 Wall Street Journal article (subscription required):

The second day of congressional testimony by the two top U.S. officials in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker, gave presidential contenders from both parties a chance to serve up views on Mr. Bush's troop surge. Mr. Bush is expected to endorse the general's plan for troop reduction in Iraq in a White House speech tomorrow night.

After a relatively mild reception Monday in the House, Gen. Petraeus and Mr. Crocker yesterday faced heavy bipartisan skepticism in the Senate as they outlined plans to reduce U.S. troop levels in Iraq gradually through July. They reiterated hopes that Iraq's warring factions will find ways to reconcile.

ABC News chief White House correspondent Martha Raddatz reported that Bush will accept Petraeus' recommendation and announce "a draw down of 30,000 troops by the end of next summer."

From the September 11 edition of ABC's World News with Charles Gibson:

CHARLES GIBSON (anchor): Homeward Bound: President Bush will follow his top general in Iraq's advice, bringing up to 30,000 troops home by next summer.

[...]

GIBSON: But next, we're going to turn to Iraq: As we reported last night, General David Petraeus testifying before Congress yesterday and today is recommending drawing down the number of troops there to pre-surge levels, but not until next July, 10 months from now. So, what will the president propose and when will he propose it? ABC's Martha Raddatz is joining us now from the White House. So, those are the questions: "What's he going to say?" and "When's he going to say it?"

RADDATZ: Well, Charlie, the president will deliver a prime-time address on Thursday night; it will be a 15- to 20-minute speech. The White House says the president, quote, "will incorporate and respond to testimony from General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker on the way forward in Iraq," but we have also learned that the president will announce a draw down of 30,000 troops by the end of next summer.

That is General Petraeus' recommendation as well, as you said, and the president will say any further reductions would depend on conditions on the ground -- Charlie.

By contrast, Henry noted that "military officials have already suggested that they're stretched and these surged troops would have to come home by next spring -- next summer anyway."

From the September 11 edition of CNN's The Situation Room:

WOLF BLITZER (host): Now to President Bush and his plans to reduce U.S. troop levels in Iraq to where they were before the start of the so-called surge that would be in January and February of this year: Our White House correspondent Ed Henry is standing by.

Ed, tell us more. What we can expect to hear from the president in his prime-time address, Thursday night?

HENRY: Well, Wolf, senior officials say the president is expected to embrace a pulling out by next summer up to 30,000 of the so-called surge troops. The point here, the president likely to bill this as a success, get some political credit for bringing these troops home. But it's important to stress, as you know, that military officials have already suggested that they're stretched and these surged troops would have to come home by next spring -- next summer anyway.

Also important to note, that this only would bring the U.S. footprint down to where it was about last December, about 130,000 U.S. troops still on the ground in Iraq. You have Democrats like John Kerry already declaring this is too little too late -- Wolf.

Posted In
National Security & Foreign Policy, War in Iraq
Network/Outlet
The Washington Post, USA Today
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