Talking to our enemies

TALKING TO OUR ENEMIES…. Gen. David Petraeus has been cautious about the presidential election, but he’s come close to all-but endorsing Barack Obama’s position on negotiating with U.S. rivals. A few weeks ago, a day after a presidential debate, Petraeus said, “I do think you have to talk to enemies…. I mean what we did do in Iraq ultimately was sit down with some of those that were shooting at us.”

The Centcom commander has been following through on this quite a bit. Petraeus has already endorsed talking to the Taliban in Afghanistan, and reportedly wants to engage Syria, as well. What’s the hitch? The Bush administration apparently won’t let him.

ABC News has learned, Petraeus proposed visiting Syria shortly after taking over as the top U.S. commander for the Middle East. The idea was swiftly rejected by Bush administration officials at the White House, State Department and the Pentagon.

Petraeus, who becomes the commander of U.S. Central Command (Centcom) Friday, had hoped to meet in Damascus with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Petraeus proposed the trip, and senior officials objected, before the covert U.S. strike earlier this week on a target inside Syria’s border with Iraq.

Officials familiar with Petraeus’ thinking on the subject say he wants to engage Syria in part because he believes that U.S. diplomacy can be used to drive a wedge between Syria and Iran. He plans to continue pushing the idea.

“When the timing is right, we ought to go in there and have a good discussion with the Syrians,” said a Defense Department official close to Petraeus. “It’s a meaningful dialogue to have.”

It’s probably a mistake to view everything through the lens of the presidential campaign, but this ABC News report is one of the day’s most fascinating items. Not only is Petraeus at odds with Bush, but people close to him are leaking this information just a few days before the presidential election.

What’s more, it reinforces the dynamic that’s been apparent for a while — when it comes to a national security strategy predicated on diplomacy, Obama and Petraeus are on one side, while McCain and Bush are on the other.

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Steve Benen

Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.