The Los Angeles Times, New York Times, and USA Today lead with Gen. David Petraeus telling lawmakers that troop withdrawals from Iraq should stop indefinitely this summer. Testifying before two Senate committees alongside Ambassador Ryan Crocker, Petraeus insisted the security situation in Iraq has improved since last year's buildup of troops but emphasized the gains are "fragile and reversible." To no one's surprise, Petraeus advocated for a 45-day pause in troop reductions after the already-planned withdrawal in July as a time for "consolidation and evaluation" and said that only then would commanders begin considering bringing more troops home. Despite repeated questioning from Democrats, Petraeus refused to say what kind of conditions would tip the scales toward further withdrawals and adamantly declined to offer a timetable.
The Wall Street Journal leads its world-wide newsbox with word that the Bush administration is planning to expand a government program to help those who are having trouble keeping up with mortgage payments to stay in their homes. This expansion, which is designed to help about 100,000 homeowners, will be announced today. The Washington Postgives big play to the hearings but devotes its lead spot to a new study by the Government Accountability Office that reveals federal employees regularly misuse government credit cards. The audit found that over a 15-month period, almost half of the purchases didn't follow proper procedure. There were also several instances where employees used the card in questionable and even "fraudulent" ways to pay for such things as personal expenses, iPods, laptops, expensive meals, and even Internet dating services. "Too many government employees have viewed purchase cards as their personal line of credit," Sen. Norm Coleman said. "It's time to cut up their cards and start over."
USAT reminds its readers up high that the plan Petraeus put forward yesterday would leave more American troops in Iraq than before the "surge." After July, there would be approximately 140,000 service members in Iraq, and everyone notes there's little chance that number will change much before the presidential election. "Withdrawing too many forces too quickly could jeopardize the progress of the past year," Petraeus said.
Petraeus blamed Iran for much of the continuing unrest due to Tehran's support of "special groups" (i.e., Shiite militias), which he said now "pose the greatest long-term threat to the viability of a democratic Iraq." The LAT notes Crocker "gave some of the most detailed analysis of Iranian goals in Iraq delivered by a senior U.S. official," as he pointed out that almost all Shiite factions have some sort of link to Tehran. Crocker characterized it as a "'Lebanization' strategy" because it looks similar to the way Iran has backed Hezbollah.
The LAT says that despite all the back-and-forth, Petraeus didn't really have as much on the line yesterday as he did seven months ago. Back then, it looked like, even if just for a second, impatience with the lack of progress could have pushed lawmakers to support a withdrawal from Iraq. There was no such risk yesterday, which was more of a "confrontation between two immovable forces," and there's little mystery as to the outcome since President Bush has made it clear he will support Petraeus' plan.
Another factor that made yesterday's hearings different was that much of the focus was not on Petraeus and Crocker but rather on the three presidential contenders who took a break from campaigning to attend the hearings. The NYT notes there were times when the Democratic contenders and the Republican candidate "seemed to be talking about two different wars," although they all followed a general strategy of trying not to seem "too easy or tough on General Petraeus." Sen. John McCain was the first to speak and said that calls for a rapid withdrawal are "reckless and irresponsible." Clinton got a chance to respond a few hours later when she said that it would be "irresponsible to continue the policy that has not produced the results that have been promised time and time again." Clinton emphasized that "it's time to begin an orderly process of withdrawing our troops" so the military can focus on other conflicts. For his part, Obama said the reduction in violence hasn't led to much political reconciliation and argued against setting the bar so high that the appropriate conditions for withdrawal could never be met.
This point made by Obama echoed the frustration of several lawmakers who, as the WP points out in a Page One analysis, expressed exasperation over their inability to get a straight answer to one question: What would constitute the right "conditions" for withdrawal? "The bottom line was that there was no bottom line," says the Post.
Under the new plan that the White House will announce today to help struggling homeowners, lenders would be encouraged to decrease the value of the mortgages and "the risk of default would be shifted to the government," notes the WSJ. This new expansion could specifically benefit many who owe more on their home than what it's worth. Democrats are likely to resist the move because it would help only a small fraction of the homeowners who are currently in trouble. But the move could help Republican lawmakers who don't want to appear as though they're not doing anything about the housing crisis but aren't comfortable with the broader Democratic plans.
The NYT fronts a look at how the Justice Department no longer seems to be that interested in prosecuting companies that are accused of wrongdoing. Over the last three years, the department has chosen not to prosecute "more than 50 companies" that agreed to enter into an agreement that allows the government to levy fines and appoint an outside monitor to mandate internal changes in a corporation. These deferred prosecution agreements have been used extensively by the Bush administration, and some worry that companies might be taking on extra risks because they're confident they won't have to face trial if detected. The NYT says this might well be the way Justice will deal with companies involved in its subprime mortgage investigations.
The NYT's David Leonhardt points out that an interesting fact about the current economic downturn is that "the now-finished boom was, for most Americans, nothing of the sort." For the first time since World War II, the economic expansion of the last few years didn't benefit the median American family who actually made a bit less in 2007 than in 2000. "We have had expansions before where the bottom end didn't do well," an economist said. "But we've never had an expansion in which the middle of income distribution had no wage growth."
The Post fronts a piece on a Chinese human rights activist who is "treated like a threat to national security" when most countries would consider him "a gadfly." It's a pertinent reminder that even as the protesters surrounding the Olympic torch relay focus on Tibet and Sudan, there are plenty of other things to complain about regarding the daily activities of the Chinese government toward its own citizens who have the audacity to challenge authority. As officials get ready for what are expected to be large protests in San Francisco today, the NYT's editorial boardoffers some "free advice" to China, which is said to be looking for a public relations firm to boost its image before the Olympics. "Here's what you do: Stop arresting dissidents. Stop spreading lies about the Dalai Lama. … Stop being an enabler to Sudan in its genocide in Darfur."