Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Observations on Iraq Hearings: Day One (Pt I)

Jim Fine
Jim Fine, FCNL
Guest blogger

No surprises. A nearly complete (and if you are interested in Iraq policy change, a regrettable) partisan divide in Congress. Same old (but from the administration’s perspective, pretty effective) distortions on key issues. Just a hint of constructive nuance that could under the best of circumstances blossom into a policy change in the next administration. These are my conclusions from the first day of Congressional testimony on Iraq by General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker. The two appeared before the Senate Armed Service and Foreign Relations Committees on Tuesday and will face the comparable House committees Wednesday.

No Surprises

The central theme of the Petraeus-Crocker testimony was that progress in Iraq is “substantial but reversible,” a cagey formulation that is vague and cautious enough to be plausible and conveniently implies that continued U.S. commitment is essential if reversal is to be prevented and progress sustained. I expected no less from a team that has actually evidenced considerable understanding of Iraq and the region, as well as considerable talent in dealing with Congress and the public. Indeed, in the service of a different administration, this team might not be a bad one to put on the field.

And there was, of course, no surprise on the subject of withdrawal, but, again, there was a particularly artful formulation. Gen. Petraeus explained that in July the administration would declare a 45-day period of “consolidation,” after which it would begin an “assessment,” and then formulate recommendations on further troop draw downs “as conditions permit.” Pressed by Senator Levin (MI) to say if it might take one, two, three months, or more after the 45-day consolidation period to complete the assessment and recommend a further draw down, Gen. Petraeus said only that this would be accomplished “as conditions permit.”

Partisan Divide

The opening statements by Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Carl Levin and ranking member John McCain predictably highlighted partisan differences on Iraq. Levin said the recent fighting in Basra raised questions about the military success of the U.S. troop surge in addition to its failure to achieve the intended goal of political
reconciliation. He warned that the U.S. was being drawn deeper into a civil conflict and argued that only an announced timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops would prompt Iraqi factions to reach a political accommodation.

McCain, in contrast, argued that the change in U.S. strategy a year ago had brought Iraq back from the brink of civil war and given him real hope and optimism that the success of a stable and democratic Iraq was achievable. A premature U.S. withdrawal, he said, would be a victory for al-Qaeda and Iran.
Questions and comments from Armed Services and Foreign Relations Committee members followed similar partisan lines.

But there was one significant exception: the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Richard Lugar (IN), delivered a strikingly frank opening statement asserting that “Iraq will be an unstable country for the foreseeable future” and that the idea of a democratic, pluralistic Iraq emerging anytime soon was an illusion. U.S. security operations, he said, had reached a plateau and could not be expected to have a further “transformational” effect on the situation. The limited number of U.S. troops available made a substantial draw down certain, he added, and concluded, “We need a strategy that needs a political end game.” If you didn’t have a score card, it would have been hard to tell if the statement came from a Republican or a Democrat. It was a glimmer of nonpartisan realism and candor that made it possible to think for a moment that Congress might be capable of uniting around a new policy on Iraq.

Read Part II of these observations


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