Deferring to the Generals

Presidents are often tied irrevocably to their military commanders during wartime.

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Presidents are often tied irrevocably to their military commanders during wartime. And that's what has happened to George W. Bush as he relies on Gen. David Petraeus, leader of U.S. forces in Iraq, not only to pursue the fight but to persuade Congress and the American people to stay committed to victory. Lucky for Bush, Petraeus—his chest covered with service ribbons and his shoulders glittering with four stars—was impressive when he testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee April 8. But what he said wasn't very optimistic. Admitting that progress in Iraq has been "fragile and reversible," he argued that this is no time for a fast exit.

Many senators aren't sold, but Bush says he will follow Petraeus's recommendation to delay setting a further withdrawal schedule. (The president also announced that future deployments will be limited to 12 months, rather than the current 15 months.) Deference to military commanders isn't unusual. The president's father, George H. W. Bush, relied heavily on both Gen. Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Gen. "Stormin' Norman" Schwarzkopf to manage and explain the 1991 Persian Gulf War. It was a big success. But sometimes the outcome isn't so positive. Lyndon Johnson micromanaged the Vietnam War and counted on Gen. William Westmoreland to win, but it couldn't be done. Most presidents prefer the model of Abraham Lincoln, who gave his Civil War field commanders enormous latitude but fired them when they failed. In the end, he found victory with Gen. Ulysses Grant. It didn't end there for Grant, of course. He went on to get elected president a few years later—which some pundits see as a nice promotion for Petraeus if the Iraq war is eventually won.