Petraeus briefly collapses at Senate hearing on Afghanistan

Gen. David Petraeus, the head of Central Command, blamed his brief collapse in a Senate hearing Tuesday morning on dehydration and lack of food.

Petraeus joked that he had felt “lightheaded” — but added the condition was not caused by questioning from Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the Senate Armed Services Committee’s ranking member.

McCain was wrapping up his questioning time when Petraeus slumped over and appeared to have briefly fainted. McCain watched the scene in concerned amazement as it was unfolding.

Petraeus “has never fainted before today,” said his spokesman, Col. Erik Gunhus. “Gen. Petraeus is feeling much better. … He will be OK.”

Gunhus said the Army general had just returned from a weeklong trip to Jordan and London.

McCain tweeted after the incident: “I’m glad General Petraeus is ok!”

The collapse happened about an hour into an Armed Services Committee meeting on U.S. efforts in Afghanistan.

Petraeus, who oversees efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, slumped forward, prompting his aides to rush to his side. The four-star general recovered quickly and, surrounded by his aides, walked out of the hearing room on his own.

“I saw how pale he was,” Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said in a short interview. “That is what really scared me.”

Levin said he had never seen any witness collapse during a hearing.

A doctor examined Petraeus and the commander was able to return to the hearing, doing so to much applause. He was determined to continue, but Levin decided against it and rescheduled for Wednesday morning.

Even though the hearing was rescheduled, the general returned to work.

On Tuesday afternoon, Petraeus was “back at work at the Pentagon and executing his afternoon schedule,” Gunhus said.

Petraeus was successfully treated for early-stage prostate cancer last year.

He was propelled into the spotlight for overseeing the troop surge in Iraq two years ago. The most popular general of his generation, Petraeus has kept a low public profile since he took over as the head of U.S. Central Command.

Despite numerous denials that he is interested in running for president in 2012, Petraeus has not calmed the rumors that he will one day run for the White House.

“People are attributing political ambition to him. There has always been a tendency with successful military figures to talk about political ambition. … Soldiers are held in high esteem,” said Ross Baker, a professor of political science at Rutgers University.

If he decides to run for office, questions about his brief collapse “will come up,” Baker said.

“Health issues are always important” for those running for office, Baker noted. “People, particularly those who come out of a non-political background, are somewhat of a mystery, and people want to know more about them.”

Michael O’Brien contributed to this article.

This story was originally posted at 10:30 a.m. and updated at 8:16 p.m.