Testifying before the Senate, the general sticks to the script.
Judging from Gen. David Petraeus' Senate testimony today, our military commitment to Iraq is open-ended and unconditional.
The "pause" in troop withdrawals, after the surge brigades go home this July, will not be "brief"—as some officials have hoped—but indefinite.
The way that Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker formulated the problem, cutting troops below the current level of 140,000 is not even a conceivable option. They laid out a Catch-22: If things in Iraq get worse, we can't cut back, lest things get worse still; if things get better, we can't cut back, lest we risk reversing all our gains.
In hearings before two Senate committees today—armed services in the morning, foreign relations this afternoon—Petraeus sought to convey a sense of control, complexity, and precision, displaying detailed charts and uttering seemingly scientific jargon ("conditions-based analysis … battlefield geometry … the politico-military calculus").
Yet, at a telling moment this morning, Sen. Hillary Clinton asked him under what conditions he would recommend reducing troop levels. Petraeus couldn't, or wouldn't, answer the question, noting, "It's not a mathematical exercise."
That's true, but, for the Bush administration, it doesn't seem to be an exercise at all. Sen. Joseph Biden, chairman of the foreign relations committee, later tried to squeeze an answer to the same question from Crocker—what are the conditions that might permit a phased withdrawal—again to no avail.
Their unwavering stance amounted to this: Further pullouts might trigger defeat; the costs of defeat are too horrible to ponder; therefore, we shouldn't ponder further pullouts.
Specifically, Petraeus called for a 45-day pause after the five surge brigades go home this July. After the pause will come an "evaluation" of the security situation. Then there will be an "assessment" of that evaluation. And on that basis, there will be a "determination" whether further reductions can be made, "as conditions permit."
As Sen. Carl Levin, chairman of the armed services committee, noted, this sounds an awful lot like an "open-ended pause" that could "take pressure off Iraq's leaders to take responsibility for their own country."
This is the dilemma that was raised by a few senators, but it was never really engaged. True, if we withdraw more troops, Iraq might fall apart. But if we make it clear that we will not withdraw more troops, no matter what, Iraq's political leaders will simply bask in America's security blanket and take no steps toward reaching some accord with their sectarian foes or forming a unified government.
Both sides in this debate have a point. But the Bush-Petraeus-Crocker position—refusing even to threaten or contemplate withdrawals—amounts to a hope and crossed fingers, not a strategy. It lays out no clear course for how to translate tactical progress into strategic success.
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 Gen. David Petraeus Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images.