David Petraeus for president? He keeps speculation alive.

Army Gen. David Petraeus, credited with devising a counterinsurgency doctrine to save Iraq from chaos, spoke at a Thursday dinner for conservatives and neo-conservatives. He didn't exactly squelch speculation about a possible presidential bid.

Allauddin Khan/AP
US Army Gen. David Petraeus talks during a press conference in Kandahar city, Afghanistan, April 30.

Speculation has run rampant for months that Gen. David Petraeus, who heads the US Army’s Central Command and is widely credited with lead authorship of the “people first” counterinsurgency doctrine implemented in Iraq and Afghanistan, is toying with the idea of a run for the White House.

General Petraeus did little to squelch that speculation Thursday night when he spoke at the annual dinner of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), one of Washington’s premier conservative think tanks.

With former Vice President Dick Cheney and members of the Bush-era glitterati known as the neo-cons looking on, Petraeus accepted AEI’s annual Irving Kristol Award, named after the giant of neo-conservatism – a conservative ideology with roots in American liberal thinking that eschews realist foreign policy in favor of an activist and interventionist approach to the world. The highest goal of neo-conservatism is the spread of “American values” including freedom and democracy.

The late Mr. Kristol’s son, Bill Kristol, noted in a tribute to the award’s three decades of honorees that none has ever gone on to become president. He then added to applause and laughter, “Perhaps this curious and glaring omission will be rectified.”

Rather than simply letting that moment pass, Petraeus said upon taking the podium that in mulling over the theme for his speech, “It never crossed my mind, Bill, to talk about what you were suggesting.”

The line was delivered with a smile.

Nay, not so, Petraeus aides insist

Petraeus’s aides have denied for months that their boss is eyeing America’s top elected office. Others close to the four-star general acknowledge that he has a big ego and does not mind bathing in the comparisons between him and the last Army general to rise to the White House, President Eisenhower.

But some political observers say the denials mean little, because a top military leader like Petraeus – in charge of two wars, and with a keen understanding of how Washington works – knows better than to threaten the political environment for the wars’ support by suggesting an interest in 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Thus the decision to play coy, some political analysts say.

Still, some attendees of Thursday’s dinner, upon listening to Petraeus, said they couldn’t help but hear a candidate laying out his vision for governing the nation as the general developed his theme of how “big ideas” turned around a lost cause in Iraq.

“The most important surge in Iraq was not the surge of forces,” he said. “Rather, it was the surge of ideas that guided the employment of our forces in Iraq.”

'Coach' of the team that turned Iraq around

Petraeus took over command of the Iraq war as it spiraled out of control and into deeper violence. He spearheaded implementation there of a new counterinsurgency doctrine that gives primacy to winning over and protecting local populations, and to such now-familiar concepts as “hold and build” and “the humanitarian is the decisive terrain.”

As head of the Central Command, Petraeus is now overseeing an extension of that philosophy to the war in Afghanistan.

Petraeus told his audience that he was simply the “coach” of a team that developed together and implemented the “big ideas” such as deploying troops to live among the locals – ideas that, he said, “enabled the considerable progress that we have seen over the last three years” in Iraq.

But the general somehow couldn’t close on that note, instead leaving his audience with a quote from another American general, one who would go on to become president: George Washington.

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