War Stories

Stonewall Petraeus

Testifying before the Senate, the general sticks to the script.

Gen. David Petraeus

Judging from Gen. David Petraeus’ Senate testimony today, our military commitment to Iraq is open-ended and unconditional.

The “pause” in troop withdrawals, after the surge brigades go home this July, will not be “brief”—as some officials have hoped—but indefinite.

The way that Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker formulated the problem, cutting troops below the current level of 140,000 is not even a conceivable option. They laid out a Catch-22: If things in Iraq get worse, we can’t cut back, lest things get worse still; if things get better, we can’t cut back, lest we risk reversing all our gains.

In hearings before two Senate committees today—armed services in the morning, foreign relations this afternoon—Petraeus sought to convey a sense of control, complexity, and precision, displaying detailed charts and uttering seemingly scientific jargon (“conditions-based analysis … battlefield geometry … the politico-military calculus”).

Yet, at a telling moment this morning, Sen. Hillary Clinton asked him under what conditions he would recommend reducing troop levels. Petraeus couldn’t, or wouldn’t, answer the question, noting, “It’s not a mathematical exercise.”

That’s true, but, for the Bush administration, it doesn’t seem to be an exercise at all. Sen. Joseph Biden, chairman of the foreign relations committee, later tried to squeeze an answer to the same question from Crocker—what are the conditions that might permit a phased withdrawal—again to no avail.

Their unwavering stance amounted to this: Further pullouts might trigger defeat; the costs of defeat are too horrible to ponder; therefore, we shouldn’t ponder further pullouts.

Specifically, Petraeus called for a 45-day pause after the five surge brigades go home this July. After the pause will come an “evaluation” of the security situation. Then there will be an “assessment” of that evaluation. And on that basis, there will be a “determination” whether further reductions can be made, “as conditions permit.”

As Sen. Carl Levin, chairman of the armed services committee, noted, this sounds an awful lot like an “open-ended pause” that could “take pressure off Iraq’s leaders to take responsibility for their own country.”

This is the dilemma that was raised by a few senators, but it was never really engaged. True, if we withdraw more troops, Iraq might fall apart. But if we make it clear that we will not withdraw more troops, no matter what, Iraq’s political leaders will simply bask in America’s security blanket and take no steps toward reaching some accord with their sectarian foes or forming a unified government.

Both sides in this debate have a point. But the Bush-Petraeus-Crocker position—refusing even to threaten or contemplate withdrawals—amounts to a hope and crossed fingers, not a strategy. It lays out no clear course for how to translate tactical progress into strategic success.

As Petraeus himself has said many times, and as many senators repeated over eight hours of hearings today, the surge—along with the shift to a counterinsurgency strategy—is a means, not an end. Its point is not to win a military victory (there is no such thing here, Petraeus has emphasized) but rather to create enough security in Baghdad—a “breathing space”—to let the political factions reconcile their disputes.

In those terms, the surge—along with several other factors—has helped reduce violence in Iraq. That is tactical progress. But the Iraqis have not taken advantage of the breathing space to get their act together. There has not been strategic success; nor is there any sign of it on the horizon.

Near the end of the afternoon, Sen. Barack Obama, the Democrats’ likely presidential nominee but a junior member of the foreign relations committee, finally got his turn to ask questions—and he homed in on one of the administration’s key conceptual failures.

Obama built up to his point with a series of questions. Our goal, he asked, isn’t to wipe out every member of al-Qaida in Iraq (an impossible feat), but rather to reduce AQI’s threat to manageable proportions, right? Petraeus agreed. And we’re not going to erase Iran’s influence in Iraq—they’re neighbors, after all. The goal is to make this relationship somewhat stable.

That being the case, Obama continued, what is the standard of success? What level of stability in Iraq would let us reduce our presence there to, say, 30,000 troops? What does a stable-enough Iraq look like? “If the definition of success is so high—no al-Qaida in Iraq, a highly effective Iraqi government … democracy, no Iranian influence—that portends … staying 30 to 70 years,” Obama said. What’s a more achievable definition? What’s a realistic goal, and what are we doing to get there? “I’m trying to get to an end point,” he said. “That’s what all of us are trying to do.”

This is what many critics and thoughtful supporters of the war have been trying to do for five years now. The Bush administration hasn’t addressed the issue. And, ultimately, neither did Petraeus or Crocker today.

There was much anticipation over the presence of Sens. Clinton and Obama, hot and weary off the campaign trail. Some saw their performances at the hearings—the quality and tenor of their questions—as a “test” of their presidential mettle, and both showed their stripes.

So, in a different way, did the presumptive Republican nominee, John McCain, the ranking minority member of the Senate armed services committee. He asked Petraeus and Crocker a couple of tough questions, to stave off perceptions of being a cheerleader. But his final remark was the giveaway: “Congress must not choose to lose in Iraq,” he said—as if anyone calling for troop cutbacks is a defeatist and as if Congress’ choice has much to do with the ultimate outcome.

A final word: Gen. Petraeus should be commended for staying out of the political crossfire. At one point, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, an active supporter of McCain’s, asked Petraeus to lay out the consequences of reducing U.S. forces by one brigade a month. This query was, of course, aimed at Sens. Clinton and Obama, who have proposed just such a policy. Petraeus didn’t take the bait. “It would clearly depend on the conditions at that time,” he replied. Graham pushed the matter: “At this point, is it a responsible position to take?” Again, Petraeus replied, stone-faced: “I have advocated conditions-based reductions.”

Petraeus may be carrying the president’s water. That is, up to a point, unavoidable. But he explicitly refused to do sound bites for the president’s party.