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Petraeus Warns Of Giving Ammunition To Extremists, 'Revisionist Powers'

Stressing the importance of America's Muslim allies in the fight against Islamic extremism, retired Gen. David Petraeus says it's important for the U.S. to avoid portraying the conflict as "a clash of civilizations." His comments came in a House Armed Services Committee hearing titled "The State of the World: National Security Threats and Challenges."

Asked about President Trump's recent immigration ban, Petraeus said he hopes the security review that was given as a reason for the ban is carried out quickly and that the long-term effects of the order targeting Iraq and six other Muslim-majority countries will depend on how long the ban lasts.

"We must also remember that Islamic extremists want to portray this fight as a clash of civilizations, with America at war against Islam," Petraeus said Wednesday. "We must not let them do that. Indeed, we must be very sensitive to actions that might give them ammunition in such an effort."

Mentioning Iraqis who have worked with the U.S. to fight terrorists and bring stability to their country, Petraeus said that many of them are now in limbo, after undergoing a years-long process of being cleared to travel to the U.S. As an example, he cited Gen. Talib Shaghati Mshari al-Kenani, who heads Iraq's counterterrorism service, who is now "prevented from coming here to coordinate with Central Command" and visit his family, who was moved to the U.S. for its own safety.

The general's response came to a question from Rep. Susan Davis, D-Calif., about how the U.S. travel ban would be interpreted in Iraq and what its long-term effects might be.

Petraeus testified along with a former colleague at the CIA, John McLaughlin, the agency's former deputy director and acting director.

When Davis then asked McLaughlin if he agreed that the travel ban would give ammunition to America's enemies, he answered, "Almost everything we do gives the Islamic extremists ammunition. They can take almost anything, any American policy, and turn it into propaganda. And they will do that with this."

Lasting for several hours, the hearing touched on a wide range of topics, from the ambitions of Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin, to the complexities of dealing with China. But the fight against terrorism, and the unique threat posed by ISIS, were a recurring theme.

"Our most important ally in this war is the overwhelming majority of Muslims who reject al-Qaida, Daesh, and their fanatical, barbaric worldview," Petraeus said. "Indeed, it is millions of Muslims who are fighting and dying in the greatest numbers on the front lines of this war."

At that point, Petraeus ran down a list of places where Muslims are fighting extremists, from Iraq, Yemen and Somalia to Libya — all of which are named in the controversial immigration order.

The former general then discussed the dangers to America posed by technologies and strategies that undermine its traditional strengths. And he cited "revisionist powers" such as Russia and China that are seeking to sap America's power and influence.

After America's operations in Iraq and Afghanistan showed the might of America's military, Petraeus said, "our adversaries responded with strategies that, for a fraction of the cost, nullified many of our advantages."

Petraeus said:

"What Islamist extremists demonstrated through insurgency and terrorism, revisionist powers like Russia, China and Iran promise to take to a whole new level of sophistication — and with much more sophisticated weaponry, as well."

Describing those threats, Petraeus listed weapons such as "anti-access area denial weapons" (which military experts say range from missile bases to mines); cyberweapons that can be deployed on their own or as part of a larger campaign; and a "renewed emphasis on nuclear weapons and threats to U.S. primacy in space."

Even as those threats have grown, Petraeus said, American resolve about its defense has become somewhat ambivalent — and he warned that the U.S. shouldn't take the current world order for granted.

Both Petraeus and McLaughlin identified Putin's Russia as a destabilizing force, with Petraeus saying, "Russia is tenaciously working to sow doubt about the legitimacy of these institutions and our entire democratic way of life."

Trump and Putin have pledged their mutual admiration and intentions to thaw relations between the U.S. and Russia — a move that could include the easing of sanctions that the Obama administration used to punish the country for what it deemed a campaign to meddle with the recent presidential election.

McLaughlin, who mentioned Russia 26 times in his prepared remarks, said Putin will seek to have those sanctions lifted. Here's what he had to say about U.S.-Russia relations:

"There is nothing at all wrong with aiming for an improved relationship with Russia, but the U.S. must be aware that Russia calculates its interests in a cold-eyed clinical way and Washington will have to be equally dispassionate in dealing with Putin. Historically, when Russia encounters weakness or hesitation, it demands more, then blames the opponent for escalation when the opponent resists — then calls for discussions, which it uses to consolidate its gains. Deals don't come easily."

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Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.