The House Tosses Softballs to Gen. Petraeus
Six hours of largely predictable, pro forma testimony.
Maybe Tuesday will be Congress' good news day.
Monday was mainly a disgrace. Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker made their eagerly awaited appearances before a joint hearing of the House armed services and House foreign affairs committees to report on the status of war and politics in Iraq. The former's chairman, Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo., heralded it as "maybe the most important hearing of the year."
Instead, Petraeus' testimony was predictable, Crocker's was almost pathetically strained, and the legislators' questions were by and large weak-kneed, even by House standards.
Tomorrow's hearings, before the Senate armed services and foreign relations committees (separately, not jointly), will probably prove more interesting, if just because several presidential candidates sit on the panels.
The House hearing started out promisingly. Skelton said the two witnesses "must answer the question: Why should we continue sending our young men and women to fight and die if the Iraqis don't make the tough decisions?" But then he never asked them that question.
It was a pro forma session. All involved had their say. There was nearly no intellectual tussling or back-and-forth, very little real discussion of policy, strategy, or tactics. (Only a few of the junior members, whose turn came toward the end of the hearing, even broached such matters as whether there even is, or soon will be, an Iraqi nation, thus raising the question of just what is the war's political goal.)
Gen. Petraeus elaborated on his earlier claims of "tactical momentum" and said these improvements were sufficient to allow a reduction of U.S. troops to "pre-surge levels"—back down from 20 to 15 combat brigades—by next summer. But he did not point out—nor did any of his interrogators—that such a drawdown is inevitable, simply because, as the next five brigades pull out of Iraq, the Army and Marines simply don't have any replacements ready to go. This would be the case no matter how well or badly things have gone.
Ambassador Crocker, a seasoned and expert diplomat, showed a stiff upper lip, trying to put forth an impression of progress without lying about anything.
"It is possible for the United States to secure its goals in Iraq," he testified (making no effort to disguise the italics). "I do believe that Iraqi leaders have the will" to reconcile sectarian conflicts in a unified government, he said, "though it will take longer" than he'd like to see. "Most Iraqis genuinely accept Iraq as a multi-ethnic, multi-sectarian society," he asserted, then added, "It is the balance of power that has yet to be worked out." Oh, is that all?
The point of the surge, as Gen. Petraeus has often said, is to improve security in Baghdad in order to give Iraq's political leaders the "breathing room" to reconcile, pass key legislation, and create a unified government. So far, they've done nothing tangible toward that end. "Why," Skelton asked, "should we expect the next six months to be any different?"
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and author of the book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter.
Photograph of David Petraeus and Ryan Crocker by Karen Bleier/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images. Photograph of Gen. David Petraeus on Slate's home page by Tim Sloan/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images.