War Stories

The House Tosses Softballs to Gen. Petraeus

Six hours of largely predictable, pro forma testimony.

Gen. David Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker

Maybe Tuesday will be Congress’ good news day.

Monday was mainly a disgrace. Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker made their eagerly awaited appearances before a joint hearing of the House armed services and House foreign affairs committees to report on the status of war and politics in Iraq. The former’s chairman, Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo., heralded it as “maybe the most important hearing of the year.”

Instead, Petraeus’ testimony was predictable, Crocker’s was almost pathetically strained, and the legislators’ questions were by and large weak-kneed, even by House standards.

Tomorrow’s hearings, before the Senate armed services and foreign relations committees (separately, not jointly), will probably prove more interesting, if just because several presidential candidates sit on the panels.

The House hearing started out promisingly. Skelton said the two witnesses “must answer the question: Why should we continue sending our young men and women to fight and die if the Iraqis don’t make the tough decisions?” But then he never asked them that question.

It was a pro forma session. All involved had their say. There was nearly no intellectual tussling or back-and-forth, very little real discussion of policy, strategy, or tactics. (Only a few of the junior members, whose turn came toward the end of the hearing, even broached such matters as whether there even is, or soon will be, an Iraqi nation, thus raising the question of just what is the war’s political goal.)

Gen. Petraeus elaborated on his earlier claims of “tactical momentum” and said these improvements were sufficient to allow a reduction of U.S. troops to “pre-surge levels”—back down from 20 to 15 combat brigades—by next summer. But he did not point out—nor did any of his interrogators—that such a drawdown is inevitable, simply because, as the next five brigades pull out of Iraq, the Army and Marines simply don’t have any replacements ready to go. This would be the case no matter how well or badly things have gone.

Ambassador Crocker, a seasoned and expert diplomat, showed a stiff upper lip, trying to put forth an impression of progress without lying about anything.

“It is possible for the United States to secure its goals in Iraq,” he testified (making no effort to disguise the italics). “I do believe that Iraqi leaders have the will” to reconcile sectarian conflicts in a unified government, he said, “though it will take longer” than he’d like to see. “Most Iraqis genuinely accept Iraq as a multi-ethnic, multi-sectarian society,” he asserted, then added, “It is the balance of power that has yet to be worked out.” Oh, is that all?

The point of the surge, as Gen. Petraeus has often said, is to improve security in Baghdad in order to give Iraq’s political leaders the “breathing room” to reconcile, pass key legislation, and create a unified government. So far, they’ve done nothing tangible toward that end. “Why,” Skelton asked, “should we expect the next six months to be any different?”

Crocker answered, with salutary frankness, “I am frustrated every day I spend in Iraq. … Iraqis themselves are frustrated. … They are capable of coming together and thrashing out serious issues.” But in the next six months? “I frankly do not expect that we will see rapid progress.”

How long will it take? Neither Petraeus nor Crocker could say. Petraeus put up a chart showing the coming drawdown of U.S. forces—and a relaxation of the military mission, from main actor in counterinsurgency to mere supporter of improved Iraqi security forces. The graph showed specific dates up to next summer, when five brigades will be withdrawn—but beyond that, there were only question marks.

It would, he said, be premature to recommend “the pace of redeployment” beyond next summer. It is not time, he added, to scale back the scope of U.S. strategy. He noted that some have recommended dropping the counterinsurgency mission—protecting the Iraqi population from sectarian violence—and focusing just on going after terrorists and training Iraqi forces. But Petraeus said we need to keep pursuing all three goals.

As Crocker put it, “Our current course is hard. The alternatives are far worse.”

I wasn’t at the hearing. Like most people, I watched it on television. But a pall of paralysis and gloom seemed to drape the room. Nobody could have been surprised by the questions or answers. Nobody could have been satisfied by what anyone said. The situation is indisputably grim. Nobody seems to know what to do about it.

At the start of the hearing, Skelton referred to Petraeus as “the right person—three years too late and 250,000 troops too short.” Later on, Petraeus was asked if he had enough troops to do his job. He replied, “I have what we have—what the military could have.” Which didn’t answer the question. Nobody pressed the issue. What was the point? The horrendous mistakes of the past are too obvious. Petraeus and Crocker had nothing to do with those mistakes. Nor will they have anything to do with the decisions that get us out of, or suck us deeper into, this war. That’s beyond their pay grade. They’re doing their jobs; they’re doing them as well as can be expected. The crucial questions need to be addressed elsewhere—and won’t be dealt with until after the 2008 election.