Petraeus Takes the Hill

The Iraq general's testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee was predictable: progress is real, we must stay the course. But committee Democrats missed an opportunity to undercut the White House story.

| Tue Apr. 8, 2008 2:00 AM EDT
As General David Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday and pitched a story of success in Iraq, a news update flashed on the television screen: Sadr threatens to end cease-fire. Meaning that civil war between the Shiite-dominated government of Baghdad and the Shiite movement led by cleric Moqtada al-Sadr could erupt. But Senator John McCain, the senior Republican member at the hearing, seemed unaware of this development. He asked Petraeus, "What do you make of Sadr's declaration of a cease-fire?"

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This brief moment underscored a point that war supporters and war critics on the committee kept making throughout the hearing: The ground reality in Iraq is starkly different from how the war is depicted in the United States. Senator Joe Lieberman scoffed at war skeptics for embracing what he called a see-no-progress, hear-no-progress, speak-no-progress view of the war. On the other side, Senator Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) remarked that the testimony from Petraeus and Crocker—who each claimed there has been significant though fragile progress in Iraq—"describes one Iraq while we see another."

The main news of the morning—news that had already leaked—was that Petraeus has recommended that once the level of the U.S. troops in Iraq is brought down to presurge levels, which is scheduled for July, there be "a 45-day period of consolidation and evaluation" and then "a process of assessment" before any further troop reductions are considered. In other words, 19 months after the so-called surge—and after all the supposed success of the surge—U.S. military involvement in Iraq is expected to be what it was at the start of the surge. Under questioning from Senator Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the committee chairman, Petraeus noted that this process of assessment could take months and that additional reductions would only occur as conditions permit, indicating that the pause in the drawdown could be open-ended.

This was hardly a shocker. Petraeus, in keeping with Bush administration policy, refused to say anything concrete about reducing troops (at any time) to presurge levels. Instead, he and Crocker did what they could to keep alive the White House's favorite meme, that the surge is swell. They cited various indicators of what they consider success. "Weekly security incidents" are down to 2005 levels—at least until last week. Civilian deaths, according to U.S. military figures, have fallen to early 2006 levels. Bombings are down to mid-2006 levels. The number of Iraqi battalions taking the lead in operations is up 20 percent since January 2007. The Sunni opposition to Al Qaeda in Iraq within Anbar province remains strong. Several pieces of legislation important to national political reconciliation have moved forward in the Iraqi parliament. A budget was passed with record amounts of capital expenditures. And, as Crocker noted, Iraq's Council of Representatives approved a redesign of the Iraqi flag. Their message: We must stay the course.

The Democrats on the committee took shots at the the-surge-is-working narrative, but with their 10-minute-long bursts of disjointed questions they were not able to redefine the debate. In his opening remarks, Levin noted that the main purpose of the surge—to provide Iraqi leaders breathing room to hammer out a political settlement—"has not been achieved," and he argued that "our current open-ended commitment is an invitation to continuing [Iraqi] dependency." He blasted the "incompetence and excessively sectarian leadership" of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and noted Iraq was not spending the billions of dollars in surplus it has obtained thanks to rising oil prices, leaving the American taxpayers (who are forced to pay up to $4.00 a gallon for gas) paying for tens of billions of reconstruction within Iraq. He cited a State Department report that noted that "the intransigence of Iraq's Shiite-dominated government [is] the key threat facing the U.S. effort in Iraq, rather than al-Qaida terrorists, Sunni insurgents or Iranian-backed militias." And he said that he was recently informed that of 110 joint U.S.-Iraqi operations of company size or greater in Iraq in the first three months of 2008, Iraqi forces assumed the lead in only 10 of those missions. Kennedy wondered when Iraqi forces—the recipient of billions of dollars in U.S. assistance—are "ready to fight on their own." Senator Jim Webb (D-Va.) noted that the "awakening" in Anbar started before the escalation of U.S. troops in Iraq, and he shared his concern that the war was producing serious "strain" for the military.

When most of the Republicans questioned (so to speak) Petraeus and Crocker, they praised the pair and hailed recent developments in Iraq. Senator Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said he would award Petraeus, a four-star general, a fifth star if that were possible. McCain maintained, "It is possible to talk with real hope and optimism" about Iraq, adding, "success is within reach." The only thing to worry about, McCain suggested, was a lack of spine at home: "Congress must not choose to lose in Iraq." (While questioning Petraeus, McCain once again demonstrated he does not understand that Al Qaeda is a Sunni outfit.)

Republican Senator John Warner (R-Va.) did try to reprise a question he posed to Petraeus when the general testified before the committee last September. At that hearing, Warner asked Petraeus if the Iraq War had made "America safer." And Petraeus had replied, "I don't know, actually. I have not sat down and sorted in my own mind." This time around, Petraeus was obviously prepared for the question. But he did not have much better of a reply. "Is all this sacrifice [in Iraq] bringing about a more secured America?" Warner asked. Petraeus noted he had "thought a bit about it since September." He pointed out that Iraq is now free of a ruthless dictator and that the "seeds of a nascent democracy has been planted." He paused once or twice while answering the query. "The overall weighing of the scales is difficult." He added that only history will be able to judge. Pressed further by Warner—"it's a fairly simple question," the senator said—Petraeus remarked, "I do believe [the war] is worth it." Later on, Petraeus, quoting Tom Brokaw, praised the soldiers serving in Iraq as the "new greatest generation."

Free of fireworks—except for a few outbursts from protesters in the audience—the hearing was no game changer. Senator Hillary Clinton criticized the Bush administration's "same failed policies" in Iraq. But she did not forcefully challenge Petraeus and Crocker. In a low-key manner, she nudged Petraeus to state under what conditions he would "recommend to the president that the current strategy is not working." The general sidestepped the question. Clinton did not pound him for that.

The committee Democrats missed an opportunity to confront vigorously the front men for Bush's war in Iraq. It was not as if they hoisted a white flag. They did cite facts and figures that undermine the overall thrust of Petraeus' and Crocker's presentations. They raised pointed criticisms. They griped about the costs of the war. But it did not add up to much of an assault on Bush's policies. Given that congressional opposition to the war has lost much steam in the past year, perhaps this was to be expected. After all, Democrats in Congress appear to have given up on passing any legislation that would alter U.S. policies in Iraq. They know the public agrees with them on the war. (Warner noted that up to 80 percent of Americans don't believe the war was worth it.) But the Democrats have been stymied by a president who refuses to pull back in Iraq.

With Petraeus and Crocker spending two high-profile days on Capitol Hill to appear before four committees, the Democrats have a chance to undercut the White House story—which has gained traction within the media (if not within the public)—that the surge has been a success. In the opening round, they did not do much to inconvenience Petraeus and Crocker. It was not an entirely triumphant appearance for the pair, but it was good enough for anyone who favors a continuation of the current course in Iraq, and that includes their boss in the White House.

Photo of U.S. Army soldier in Iraq in March from flickr user soldiersmediacenter used under a Creative Commons license.