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."