When Vice President Joseph Biden sat down with Gen. David Petraeus in the outgoing CENTCOM commander's Tampa home for dinner Tuesday evening, it was actually the second private encounter between the two men in as many weeks.
Only seven days prior, Biden and Petraeus had what's called a "pull-aside" meeting at the White House. This meeting was held immediately following the senior Afghanistan strategy session in the Situation Room, where the president decided to ask Petraeus to move to Kabul and run the war in Afghanistan following the sacking of Gen. Stanley McChrystal.
Despite reports that Biden and Petraeus are on opposite sides of the debate over how to prosecute the war, Biden was actually a leading proponent of choosing Petraeus to replace McChrystal, an administration official said. Meeting with Obama in the Oval Office just before the strategy meeting where the decision to fire McChrystal was discussed, Biden gave Obama his strong recommendation to select Petraeus.
After the general accepted the offer, Biden told Petraeus in their pull-aside meeting that he had strongly supported the idea of giving him the command. The two men agreed to meet one more time before Petraeus left for Kabul. Biden happened to be traveling to Pensacola, Florida yesterday to visit areas affected by the Gulf oil spill, so they agreed to meet at Petraeus's Tampa house.
Both at their meeting last week and at Tuesday's dinner, they discussed their mutual support of the president's policy, the official said, trying to put to rest what the administration feels is an overblown discussion of an incident described in a recent book by Newsweek reporter Jonathan Alter, when Biden reportedly said, "In July of 2011 you're going to see a whole lot of people moving out. Bet on it."
"There is not a Biden versus Petraeus dynamic here," the official said. "Both the vice president and the general signed onto the president's policy and both are committed to it." That policy, the official pointed out, included both the surge of 30,000 troops and the July 2011 drawdown date, when the administration says a yet-to-be-determined number of troops will begin to depart.
Inside the policy process last fall, Biden advocated for a more counterterrorism-heavy strategy, rather than a troop-intensive counterinsurgency strategy, out of his genuine skepticism that the Afghan government would rise to the occasion.
And the quote, while accurate, doesn't attempt to define what Biden meant by "a whole lot." The surge was always meant to be a temporary measure, so when some of those 30,000 additional troops come home, that could be considered to be a "lot," the official argued
Nevertheless, Republican senators are seizing upon the Biden quote to allege that the two men are either fighting against each other inside the Obama administration, or just not on the same page regarding the president's Afghanistan policy. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-SC, pressed Petraeus on the quote during his confirmation hearing Tuesday morning, asking him if Biden was "right."
Petraeus referred to their previous meeting at the White House, saying, "The vice president grabbed me and said, ‘You should know I am 100 percent supportive of this policy.'"
The dinner itself was more of a social affair than a business event, with many other people attending, including Mrs. Holly Petraeus, Lt. Gen. John Allen, Command Sgt. Maj. Marvin Hill and his wife, and Biden's national security advisor, Tony Blinken.
Allen was named Wednesday as the new acting head of CENTCOM, succeeding Petraeus. Petraeus was confirmed for his new post Wednesday by a Senate vote of 99-0.
Official White House Photo by David Lienemann
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.