Warren P. Strobel writes for McClatchy Newspapers about yesterday’s Senate hearings:
Much to the frustration of the senators â€” mostly Democrats, but including a few Republicans â€” who grilled them Tuesday, neither the general nor the diplomat outlined a strategy for putting Iraq back together or a timetable for bringing U.S. troops home. …
… lawmakers complained that neither Petraeus nor Crocker could explain how the Iraq war fits into Bush’s war on terror or how it’s protecting Americans.
One of the most jaw-dropping moments in the hours of back-and-forth came when retiring Sen. John Warner, R-Va., asked Petraeus whether his proposal for Iraq â€” including a reduction of U.S. troops to pre-surge levels of 130,000 â€” would make the United States safer.
“Sir, I don’t know, actually,” Petraeus replied.
Two things stand out in Petraeus’ response. First, he refused to indulge in President Bush’s spurious rhetoric about how we’re fighting the terrorists in Iraq so we don’t have to fight them here. Second, he was, in effect, telling the senators: I am doing what soldiers do; I am trying my best to accomplish the mission; the mission is related to the policy, and the policy isn’t mine.
This is what President Bush is hoping no one notices. He speaks of the “commanders on the ground” as if they were the ones setting policy. For example, he said in August 2006:
If we leave before the job will be done, those who sacrificed, those brave volunteers who sacrifice in our United States military will have died in vain. And as General Abizaid has said, if we leave before the job is done — if we leave the streets of Baghdad, the enemy will follow us to our own streets in America. (Applause.)
The stakes are high. I believe the only way we can lose is if we leave before the job is done. That’s what I believe. I’m making decisions based upon the recommendations of commanders on the ground. I want to assure you, polls and focus groups will not decide the Iraq policy in the global war on terror. (Applause.)
He’s saying he is setting policy based on what the commanders tell him. But Petraeus clearly said it’s not up to the military to set policy. His testimony was not about the worthiness of the mission, but about how the mission given him might be achieved (short answer: he’s not sure, but he’ll get back to us in March).
Back to Kaplan:
In one sense, today’s hearings dealt President George W. Bush a harsh blow. Many of the senators’ questions dealt with strategic issues, which Petraeus and Crockerâ€”through no fault of their ownâ€”could not really answer to anyone’s full satisfaction. Even the vast majority of Republican senators at least cocked their eyebrows.
Nearly all the senators seemed to recognize that the few, much-vaunted successesâ€”especially in Anbar province, where Sunni tribes have joined with U.S. forces to defeat al-Qaida terroristsâ€”have little to do with the main issues of this war: sectarian violence between Sunnis and Shiites and the failure of the central government to mediate, much less settle, those conflicts. As Richard Lugar, the foreign relations committee’s ranking Republican put it, “The progress may be beside the point.” The U.S. troops may be “like a farmer planting crops on flood plains.”
Yet in another sense, Bush will probably recover from the blow without much damage. As counterinsurgency theorists understand, a combatant can win every battle and still lose the war. Similarly, the Senate Democrats won on points in today’s clashes on the issues, yet Bush will probably win the ultimate contest: the vote, in the coming weeks, on whether to continue with his plan.
In recent weeks, Bush has put all his chips on Petraeus’ testimony. He will no doubt now endorse the commander’s “proposal” for a modest troop reduction and pretend that it constitutes a compromise (even though it was physically inevitable). And he will repeatedly cite the testimony from Petraeus and Crocker that “some progress” is being made and that further withdrawals might be disastrous.
Headlines today say that Bush will announce a troop withdrawal in an address to the nation Thursday night. What this means is that sometime, probably July 2008, the troop levels in Iraq will go back to what they were a year ago, before the “surge.” Some progress. And it’s my understanding that the numbers are being determined by the fact that we’re running out of troops who haven’t been “rotated” past exhaustion, not by any real change in policy.
You realize, of course, that President Bush’s planned withdrawal of some troops next summer is going to be all over your TV screen, in an attempt to influence the ’08 election.
Troops rotate into and out of Iraq all the time, but I’m guessing that the Bushies are going to try to make these trips home into big, visually exciting spectacles, preferably featuring him and/or Laura and/or various GOP luminaries, that will be carried live and then rerun endlessly. The White House is going to try to create images that will have the same impact as the pictures of returning Vietnam POWs and the “split-screen” release of the Iranian hostages just as Ronald Reagan was being sworn in as president.
I remember during the Vietnam War, from time to time President Nixon would announce that X number of troops were coming home from Vietnam that month, as if this were an extraordinary thing. This announcement would be followed up by journalists (we still had a few back then) explaining that the number X represented the normal troop rotation. I don’t think Nixon fooled anybody, except those who were predisposed to being fooled. But, like I said, we still had real journalists in those days.
The simple fact is that Petraeus couldn’t say when all troops could be withdrawn, because that’s not a military consideration. It’s a policy consideration. And he doesn’t set the policy.
Back to Warren Strobel of McClatchy:
“Are we going to continue to invest American blood and treasure at the same rate we are doing now, for what? The president said let’s buy time. Buy time? For what?” said Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., a Vietnam veteran who also will retire next year.
Most experts argue that stabilizing Iraq requires two things above all: political reconciliation among Shiite Muslims, Sunnis and Kurds, and Iraqi security forces that can stand on their own.
Petraeus and Crocker could promise neither.
Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., asked Crocker whether ethnic reconciliation is likely in the 16 months that Bush has left in office.
“Senator, I could not put a timeline on it or a target date,” Crocker replied. There are “hopeful signs,” he said, but “how long that is going to take and, frankly, even ultimately whether it will succeed, I can’t predict.”
Cost-benefit analysis, anyone?