Washington Post editor suggests Petraeus is acting as Obama's 'front man' in selling the Afghanistan War and might 'try to define downward what it means to prevail' if his counterinsurgency strategy doesn't work

General David Petraeus, who stepped down from his position as head of Central Command in June to take on the leadership of US forces in Afghanistan, spent this past Sunday engaging in a media blitz to counter the growing impression that the Afghanistan War is running into serious problems.

Chris Hayes, Washington editor of The Nation, was skeptical about Petraeus's message, describing it on Monday as an attempt "to convince the American public that the war we are fighting is winnable and worth the cost."

Hayes, who was guest-hosting MSNBC's Rachel Maddow Show, turned for comment to Washington Post editor Rajiv Chandrasekaran, who interviewed Petraeus last week.

"I have never interviewed the general myself," Hayes began. "Is he this towering, colossally awesome dude that everybody pictures him as?"

"I''m not sure if Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, or Hammering Hank Aaron would get those kinds of accolades," Hayes remarked of Petraeus's confirmation hearings before Congress. He added, "I wonder about the degree to which his public image is a product of his actual competence and how much of it is a product of very shrewd management of said image."

Chandrasekaran largely sidestepped the question, describing Petraeus merely as "a very smart, driven individual" with whom he'd had "a pretty enlightening discussion."

He emphasized that although Petraeus is "a true believer" in his own strategy, he's not "a guy who's going to sort of blindly rush off and continue with a counterinsurgency strategy if he believes after a period of some months that there are real, significant problems with it."

"If he thinks things aren't working," Chandrasekaran insisted, "I think we could expect to see him essentially try to define downward what it means to sort of prevail there."

"The definition of prevailing has already been defined pretty far down there," was Hayes' ascerbic comment.

Chandrasekaran also disagreed with Hayes' suggestion that Petraeus might be pushing back against President Obama's assurances that withdrawal will begin next summer -- as when he spoke of "the responsibility of the military commander on the ground to provide his best professional military advice [and] to show those in Washington that there is progress being made."

"If the commander's job is to make the case for war," Hayes commented, "then Petraeus can never ever say, 'Hey, guys, this isn't working.' ... He is both personally ... and institutionally duty-bound to see the war as a project that is redeemable. .. The extent to which General Petraeus is the sales person for the White House, or the person we all hitch our wagon to, is the extent to which we make it impossible to actually end the war."

Chandrasekaran, however, said he does not believe Petraeus is deliberately trying to undermine Obama's July 2011 deadline but is focused on shoring up "the flagging American public support for the war." He emphasized that the general is conducting a "coordinated campaign" with the Obama administration in his recent flurry of interviews, rather than attempting to box the White House in by his statements, as his predecessor, General Stanley McChrystal, was accused of doing.

"I don't see him at this point freelancing," Chandrasekaran emphasized. "I see him getting out there and conveying what has been approved by the president. ... The president doesn't give a whole lot of speeches about Afghanistan, not like his predecessor did about Iraq, so it may fall to General Petraeus to be a little more of the front man for the strategy."

This video is from MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show, broadcast Aug. 16, 2010.

Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy