The highlight of today's Senate hearings—and these were substantive hearings, unlike Monday's dispirited charade in the House—came in the afternoon, before the armed services committee, when Republican Sen. John Warner asked Gen. David Petraeus whether the current strategy in Iraq "will make America safer."
Petraeus replied, "I believe that this is indeed the best course of action to achieve our objectives in Iraq."
Warner repeated his unanswered question: "Does that make America safer?"
Petraeus said, "I don't know, actually. … I have not stepped back. … I have tried to focus on what I think a commander is supposed to do, which is to determine the best recommendations to achieve the objectives of the policy for which his mission is desired."
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.
Petraeus, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, and his fellow witness, Ambassador Ryan Crocker, did their best all day and yesterday to put the most hopeful face on the grimness before them. But, to their credit, they stopped short of lying.
Republican Sen. John McCain, one of the committee's more hawkish members, asked Crocker what degree of confidence he had that the leaders of the Iraqi government will take the steps toward political reconciliation that they've promised to take.
Crocker hesitated, then replied, "My level of confidence is under control."
At this morning's hearing, before the Senate foreign relations committee, Petraeus said that he couldn't foresee the future beyond next summer and that he would return with an updated report next March.
The Democratic chairman, Sen. Joseph Biden, asked Petraeus whether he would recommend a continuation of the strategy—with 130,000 to 160,000 U.S. troops shooting and dying in Iraq—if the situation next March were the same as it is now.
Petraeus replied, "That's a really big hypothetical." Biden said, "I don't think it's a hypothetical." So Petraeus stepped up and answered the question. He said, "I'd be very hard-pressed to recommend that, at that point."
In other words, Petraeus was saying that, if Biden's hypothetical came true, he would probably recommend a shift in strategy and a larger reduction of troops than the five-brigade drawdown that he's "recommending" by next summer. (I've put "recommending" in quotes because, as noted several times, this reduction is, and always has been, part of the plan. The surge troops' tours of duty will run out starting next spring, and the U.S. Army and Marines have no ready units to replace them. Regardless of recommendations, a drawdown would be unavoidable.)
Sen. Barack Obama asked Crocker a related question: "At what point do we say, 'Enough'?" He noted that the ambassador had once said that the Iraqis understand our patience is not limitless; yet in their testimony, Crocker and Petraeus had been suggesting that it should be. "Under what circumstances," Obama asked, would Crocker recommend swifter or deeper withdrawals?
Crocker did not answer the question directly. However, he noted a few "key indicators." The level of violence, he said, needs to go down and stay down. Iraqi insurgents need to display the same sort of political cooperation that Sunni tribes are now displaying in Anbar province. Linkage needs to be developed between the central government in Baghdad and provinces where this sort of progress is taking place. And the Baghdad government needs to combat Shiite, as well as Sunni, militias.
He did not explicitly link these "indicators" to the continuation of U.S. troops in Iraq. But the implication seemed clear: If these indicators are not sustained or achieved, the U.S. mission could not be considered a success.
When Petraeus and Crocker return to Congress in March 2008, these words will no doubt be read back to them. If the situation has not improved, if the indicators are not in place, then the two will be, as Petraeus put it, "very hard-pressed" to make the case for staying the course.
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 Crocker—through no fault of their own—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 successes—especially in Anbar province, where Sunni tribes have joined with U.S. forces to defeat al-Qaida terrorists—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.
The Senate Democrats, in any case, lack the 60 votes needed to circumvent a filibuster, much less the 67 votes required to override a veto. And so, no timetables for withdrawal will be set, no enforceable benchmarks will be imposed on the Iraqi government, the surge will play out, and the war will go on, the current strategy intact, through the end of Bush's presidency. Today's hearings—which have been, remarkably, the first real hearings about this war—put substantive issues, and useful words, on the record. But they will almost certainly not result in action or change.