WASHINGTON – A strongly-worded advertisement targeting Gen. David Petraeus by the liberal antiwar group MoveOn.org has touched the nerves of Bush administration officials and congressional Republicans.
The full-page ad in The New York Times was timed to appear on the day that Petraeus — the top U.S. military commander in Iraq — gives a seminal report to Congress alongside U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker.
The report, mandated in a troop funding bill earlier this year, is on military and political progress in Iraq since President Bush announced the plan to boost troop levels last January. The officials are expected to argue for maintaining the increased troop levels through the spring, a recommendation hotly contested by war opponents.
"I resent the comments of those who have sat comfortably in their air-conditioned offices, thousands of miles away from the firefights and the roadside bombs, and tried their Washington best in recent days to impugn the general’s good name," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said in a statement delivered from the Senate floor on Monday.
The ad features a large headline under a picture of the general that reads: "General Petraeus or General Betray Us?" It goes on to say, "Cooking the books for the White House: General Petraeus is a military man constantly at war with the facts."
The ad points to statements from Petraeus such as, "We have achieved progress," regarding the troop surge this year, but says the war is failing, and criticizes the Defense Department for adopting reporting rules that MoveOn says show a rosier picture of Iraqi casualties than reality.
White House spokesman Tony Snow dismissed the ad Monday morning as a an attempt to smear the general before his testimony, and called it "boorish" and "childish."
Republican lawmakers on both sides of Capitol Hill also decried the ad as tasteless and partisan.
Sen. John Ensign, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said a failure of Democrats to denounce the ad would mean they have decided re-election is more important than "moving our country forward" or being fair to Petraeus.
"Today, ostensibly on behalf of National Democrats, Democrat front group MoveOn.org is calling a unanimously confirmed United States General a liar and betrayer of the public trust. Apparently the prospect of campaign funds is enough of an incentive for Senate Democrats to stand idly by while a respected General is maligned before he has even presented his report to Congress,said Ensign of Nevada.
Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., said: “It’s repugnant, but unfortunately not surprising, to see MoveOn.org launch this despicable ad campaign against General Petraeus."
Kyl pointed out that Petraeus, a Vietnam veteran, was confirmed as head of Multinational Forces in Iraq unanimously in the Senate earlier this year — an 81-0 vote — and called on Democrats to either take up MoveOn's war stance or support the general they voted to confirm.
“We’re beginning to see real, measurable progress in Iraq since the increased troop levels earlier this year, and despite this fact, MoveOn.org has chosen to engage in slanderous and partisan personal attacks on the commander of our troops on the ground. Because MoveOn.org seems unable to contest the facts, it has instead chosen to attack the messenger because it doesn’t like the message," Kyl said.
Fellow Arizona Republican, Sen. John McCain, issued a statement calling the ad a "McCarthyite attack" and "despicable."
"This is a man who has devoted his life in service to our nation and has defended America in many battles over many years," said McCain, also a White House contender, calling on Democrats to join him in condemning the ad.
White House hopeful Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., issued a statement calling MoveOn.org a "left wing anti-military organization," and called on Democratic leaders to rein in the group.
"General Petraeus is an American soldier. His professional life is a reflection of adherence to duty, honor and country. For the Democrat leadership to allow this slur by their ‘Move On’ allies to stand would be a slap in the face of every member of the Armed Forces. I call on the leadership of the Democrat Party to denounce this advertisement and disassociate themselves from it," said Hunter, who is the top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee.
Before becoming the Iraq war commander, Petraeus held a number of Army positions in and out of the Middle East. He has been commander of the 101st Airborne Division, assistant chief of staff for operations of the NATO Stabilization Force and deputy commander of the U.S. Joint Interagency Counter-Terrorism Task Force in Bosnia.
In 2004, Petraeus was in charge of the NATO training mission in Iraq, and in 2005 he returned to the United States, as chief of the Army Combined Arms Center at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, where he remained until February, when he took charge of Iraq operations.
Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., said Monday that although he had not seen the ad yet, the attacks were "not apprpriate" and "not fair."
Asked whether there was willingness on Democrats' part to publicly condemn the group, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's spokesman sought to downplay the criticism of Petraeus — a target of attack by Reid last week — to focus more on whether the troop surge is achieving what it set out to do.
"The issue isn't General Petraeus," Reid spokesman Jim Manley told FOX News. "He is a good man and a fine soldier. The problem is that he was brought in to administer a war that had already been badly mismanaged by President Bush."
"Serious questions have been raised, and will continue to be raised, about the veracity of some of the statistics that will be cited by the White House and General Petraeus. As General Petraeus himself said during his confirmation hearing in January, the objective of the surge was to provide Iraq's national government time to reach political reconciliation, and by every independent assessment made so far, that simply hasn't happened," Manley said.
By late morning, MoveOn issued a statement defending the ad's accuracy.
"We stand by our ad — every major independent study and many major news organizations cast serious doubt on Petraeus' claims," said Eli Pariser, executive director MoveOn.org's political action committee.
Pariser's challenged lawmakers supporting the war to refute him and cited several news articles in defending the advertisement. He also noted a new Gallup poll out Monday that, he said, shows Americans expect "a biased report that reflects what the Bush administration wants the public to believe."
The poll, however, also shows that Americans trust Petraeus' recommendations more than others, including the Joint Chiefs of Staff, President Bush and congressional Republicans and Democrats. Sixty-three percent of respondents trusted Petraeus either a great deal or a fair amount; 58 percent rated the Joint Chiefs of Staff as well; 16 percent rated the president in the same terms; and 12 percent rated congressional Democrats as trustworthy.
The Sept. 7-8 telephone poll of 1,028 U.S. adults showed that 53 percent of respondents believe the report will reflect what the Bush administration wants the public to believe, and 40 percent believe it will be "an independent and objective report on the current situation in Iraq." The poll had a 3 percent margin of error.