For a guy who professes to have no interest in running for president, Gen. David Petraeus can come off as surprisingly eager to talk about it — sometimes without even being asked.
Ambitious, shrewd, articulate, famously competitive — Petraeus has a three-decade record of accomplishment, a penchant for publicity and a reputation for toughness that sets him apart in today's military. Those qualities explain why he is sometimes talked about as a prospective presidential candidate — and why the talk seems to make him uncomfortable and energized at the same time.
Many believe Petraeus is the leading candidate to become the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, which is the pinnacle of a military career. Another possibility, generally seen as less likely, is that he would be nominated to be the next chief of staff of the Army, succeeding Gen. George Casey.
Even though the outcome in Iraq is still in doubt, Petraeus is widely seen as its savior, a miracle worker. He recently was introduced at a Washington think tank as "an authentic American hero, a man of remarkable honor and valor," and "one of the finest military minds America has ever produced."
In addition to Powell, there are plenty of other examples in American history of a popular general turning to politics, beginning with George Washington and including Ulysses S. Grant and Dwight D. Eisenhower. Among four-star Army generals who made a failed bid for the White House are Alexander Haig (1988) and Wesley K. Clark (2004).
The ascendancy of Petraeus has come during a period in American military history in which generals have acquired influence well beyond the battlefield. Petraeus and his counterpart commanders in the Pacific, in Europe and in Latin America are regular visitors to the halls of political power in foreign capitals. Some point to the commanders' clout as evidence that U.S. foreign policy has become militarized.
In Petraeus's case, Bush deliberately elevated his Iraq commander to a position of pivotal importance, saying in effect that Petraeus knew best and that the president was just following his general's lead. That reflected a Bush calculation that Petraeus had more credibility on Iraq than did he.
Peter Mansoor, a retired Army colonel who was Petraeus's executive officer in Baghdad during the surge, doubts Petraeus intends to run for president in 2012 but does not rule out the possibility of him considering it later.
"He adamantly states he's not interested in politics," Mansoor said in an interview. "Privately he's never mentioned anything different to me, so I think you have to take him at his word on that, even though no one is really convinced."
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