According to the Washington Post, the testimony of General David Petraeus yesterday left Senators frustrated at the lack of specificity he provided. Evidently, they expected the very same date-certain type of withdrawal date that Congress has repeatedly attempted to set without success. When Petraeus reminded them that his focus remained on successfully implementing the mission and not on timetables, some got rather petulant:
Asked repeatedly yesterday what “conditions” he is looking for to begin substantial U.S. troop withdrawals from Iraq after this summer’s scheduled drawdown, Army Gen. David H. Petraeus said he will know them when he sees them. For frustrated lawmakers, it was not enough.
“A year ago, the president said we couldn’t withdraw because there was too much violence,” said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.). “Now he says we can’t afford to withdraw because violence is down.” Asked Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.): “Where do we go from here?”
Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said: “I think people want a sense of what the end is going to look like.”
But the bottom line was that there was no bottom line. In testimony before the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees, Petraeus, the top U.S. military commander in Iraq, and U.S. Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker echoed what they said seven months ago in their last update to Congress — often using similar words. Iraq’s armed forces continue to improve, overall levels of violence are lower than they were last year, and political reconciliation is happening, albeit still more slowly than they would like.
This is a classic case of two parties talking past each other. Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker came to Congress to deliver a status report on a mission with long-term goals and strategies, a rather obvious point to most people. They wound up meeting with people whose goals are nothing other than withdrawal and disengagement, with no thought to the consequences. When Petraeus and Crocker made plain the disaster that would accompany early withdrawal, these Senators wound up frustrated that they got trumped.
For instance, consider the reception Petraeus received when he requested a 45-day pause in pre-surge troop level drawdowns. In any other circumstance, this would be seen as an intelligent idea to ensure that American troops did not get left overexposed in potentially hostile conditions. Yesterday it got derided as a plan without an “exit strategy” by Carl Levin, head of the Armed Services Committee. Yet the point of Petraeus’ mission isn’t to exit, but to prevail in building a free, secure, and stable Iraq that will partner with us for regional stability and against terrorism.
And the truth is that Petraeus has taken us closer to our mission goals than we have been in Iraq at any time since the invasion. The Iraqi Army has trained hundreds of thousands of soldiers, who need more seasoning but overall perform well. The Maliki government has begun to unite the Kurds and Sunnis into his government, helped in no small measure by Maliki’s action against Sadr’s Shi’ite militia this month. The National Assembly has passed most of the legislation the American Congress demanded and will conduct provincial elections in the fall for the first time ever. Violence has dropped sharply all across Iraq and continues to improve.
Perhaps some American politicians expected a Hollywood climax that would signal the end of the mission, or maybe they have become so wedded to defeat that they have no patience for any other conclusions. Regardless, their frustration comes from the fact that Petraeus has discredited their September skepticism and kept this effort in Iraq moving in the right direction.