By Alexander Bolton - 06/29/10 10:00 AM EDT
President Barack Obama’s nomination of Gen. David Petraeus has put some Democrats in a politically awkward position.
While Senate Democrats are expected to rally behind Petraeus to replace Gen. Stanley McChrystal as the top commander in Afghanistan, they must also ask tough questions about when the U.S. will withdraw troops from the war-torn country.
Meanwhile, Republicans who are looking to drive a wedge between Democratic leaders and the liberal base have pointed to critical statements Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and other leaders made about Petraeus a couple of years ago.
During the 2007 surge in Iraq, anti-war Democrats — most notably MoveOn.org — strongly criticized Petraeus.
Liberal advocacy groups and senators at the time accused Petraeus of misrepresenting the success of the surge of nearly 40,000 troops.
Two years later, the four-star general is widely credited for turning around the war in Iraq and holds strong respect among Republicans. And Obama’s decision to replace McChrystal was made easier by his selection of Petraeus, who is expected to be confirmed swiftly.
The balancing act for Democrats begins Tuesday when the Senate Armed Services Committee is scheduled to hold its confirmation hearing on Petraeus.
Reid told CNN in April of 2007 he did not believe Petraeus’s claim that the surge was working in Iraq.
“I don’t believe him, because it’s not happening,” Reid said. “All you have to do is look at the facts.”
At a press conference a few months later, Reid said: “For someone, whether it’s Gen. Petraeus or anyone else, to say things are great in Baghdad isn’t in touch with what’s going on in Baghdad, even though he’s there and I’m not.”
On Sept. 20 of that year, 25 Democrats voted against a resolution stating that Petraeus, the commanding general in Iraq, deserved the full support of the Senate and condemning personal attacks on his honor and integrity.
That vote came after MoveOn.org took out a full-page advertisement in The New York Times in September of 2007 attacking Petraeus as “General Betray Us.”
The three top-ranking members of the Democratic leadership, Reid and Sens. Dick Durbin (Ill.) and Charles Schumer (N.Y.), voted against the resolution. Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, who were both in the Senate at the time, didn’t vote on the measure.
A spokeswoman for Reid said her boss’s criticism was directed at George W. Bush’s strategy in Iraq, not at Petraeus.
“Sen. Reid had criticisms of the civilian decisionmaking and President Bush’s ‘stay-the-course’ strategy in Iraq while Gen. Petraeus served there,” said Regan Lachapelle.
Durbin explained at the time he had policy — not personal — differences with Petraeus during the Iraq war.
“The fact is, I disagree with the conclusions he presented to that joint [congressional] committee yesterday,” Durbin said in a September 2007 speech. “That, of course, does not reflect on him personally; it just reflects on the fact he and I have a difference of opinion.
“Differences of opinion are pretty basic to our style of government, not only in Congress but among the American people,” Durbin said.
Durbin also called Petraeus “extraordinarily competent” and an “honorable man.”
Liberal groups have since toned down their rhetoric on Petraeus.
Charles Chamberlain, the political director of Democracy for America, a group founded by former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean (D), did not object to Obama’s choice of Petraeus.
“We respect the commander in chief’s right to change military leadership in Afghanistan,” said Chamberlain. “We hope the confirmation hearings will lead to a strategy that brings our troops home soon.”
The war in Afghanistan has become an increasingly contentious topic among Democratic lawmakers.
House Democratic leaders are having difficulty convincing rank-and-file colleagues to vote for a military supplemental spending bill funding the war.
Rep. James McGovern (D-Mass.) wrote a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) last week asking her to postpone a vote on war funding after Obama fired McChrystal.
Obama on Sunday expressed frustration with anti-war liberals during his closing press conference at the G-20 summit in Toronto.
Obama said Sunday that there’s “a lot of obsession” about the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. He said he is focused on ensuring the success of the military mission.
The president has said he will begin withdrawing troops in July of 2011, but warned that he will not “suddenly turn off the lights and let the door close behind us.”
This position has war critics, including Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), unsatisfied. Feingold, who is up for reelection this year, wants more specific information on the size of next year’s force reduction.