Crocker answered, with salutary frankness, "I am frustrated every day I spend in Iraq. … Iraqis themselves are frustrated. … They are capable of coming together and thrashing out serious issues." But in the next six months? "I frankly do not expect that we will see rapid progress."
How long will it take? Neither Petraeus nor Crocker could say. Petraeus put up a chart showing the coming drawdown of U.S. forces—and a relaxation of the military mission, from main actor in counterinsurgency to mere supporter of improved Iraqi security forces. The graph showed specific dates up to next summer, when five brigades will be withdrawn—but beyond that, there were only question marks.
It would, he said, be premature to recommend "the pace of redeployment" beyond next summer. It is not time, he added, to scale back the scope of U.S. strategy. He noted that some have recommended dropping the counterinsurgency mission—protecting the Iraqi population from sectarian violence—and focusing just on going after terrorists and training Iraqi forces. But Petraeus said we need to keep pursuing all three goals.
As Crocker put it, "Our current course is hard. The alternatives are far worse."
I wasn't at the hearing. Like most people, I watched it on television. But a pall of paralysis and gloom seemed to drape the room. Nobody could have been surprised by the questions or answers. Nobody could have been satisfied by what anyone said. The situation is indisputably grim. Nobody seems to know what to do about it.
At the start of the hearing, Skelton referred to Petraeus as "the right person—three years too late and 250,000 troops too short." Later on, Petraeus was asked if he had enough troops to do his job. He replied, "I have what we have—what the military could have." Which didn't answer the question. Nobody pressed the issue. What was the point? The horrendous mistakes of the past are too obvious. Petraeus and Crocker had nothing to do with those mistakes. Nor will they have anything to do with the decisions that get us out of, or suck us deeper into, this war. That's beyond their pay grade. They're doing their jobs; they're doing them as well as can be expected. The crucial questions need to be addressed elsewhere—and won't be dealt with until after the 2008 election.