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Petraeus Plays Defense in Testimony « The Washington Independent

Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2008/09/petraeus-serious2.jpgGen. David Petraeus (WDCpix)

In September, Gen. David Petraeus’s mission on Capitol Hill was offensive.

He had to roll back the advance of congressional Democrats who were gathering the political momentum to stop President George W. Bush’s surge of U.S. troops in Iraq. Before the summer recess, Senate Democrats were peeling off nervous Republicans for a measure sponsored by Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) to harmonize the amount of time soldiers spent at home with their time deployed. Because of the obscure, complex math guiding Iraq deployments, Webb’s innocuous-sounding measure would have killed the surge dead.

Image has not been found. URL: http://www.washingtonindependent.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/09/nationalsecurity1.jpgIllustration by: Matt Mahurin

By the time Petraeus testified on Sept. 11, 2007, the Democrats were three GOP defections away from a veto-proof majority. Thanks to Petraeus’s bravura performance seven months ago, it never became law.

But now that the surge has died of natural causes, Petraeus’ goal on Capitol Hill this week was as hazy as the mission of the Iraq war itself. In the short-term, Petraeus argued that when all the surge brigades return home in July, Congress should allow him a 45-day “pause” to assess the situation before even further troop reductions. Beyond that, however, Petraeus demonstrated little inclination to describe how his strategy for actually fighting the war will change once he no longer has roughly 30,000 extra troops at his disposal. Nor were four congressional committees particularly interested in the answer to that question.

Accordingly, Petraeus’ approach to Congress was defensive. He needed to convince Congress that the prime consideration for troop withdrawals should be the “conditions” on the ground to stave off the political restiveness in the U.S. for rapid cuts.

But there he ran into difficulty. Asked on Wednesday by Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D-Tex.) if he would ever recommend “reinstat[ing] the surge” — that is, requesting a renewed augmentation of U.S. forces in Iraq — Petraeus all but rejected the possibility out of hand. That makes little sense in terms of consistency: if the real consideration ought to be conditions on the ground, why wouldn’t those conditions ever merit a re-surge?

Part of staving off the anti-war tide involved convincing members of Congress that the sacrifices entailed in an open-ended Iraq presence are worth the cost. And therein lay two problems. First, the security successes that Petraeus presented are, politically, a mixed blessing. After all, if the surge has worked so well, why not pull up stakes and go home? Petraeus’s response was to emphasize the “fragility” of the security situation. But that made the security gains Petraeus championed appear illusory — and damaging to Petraeus’s credibility.

“It clearly is in our national interest to help Iraq prevent the resurgence of Al Qaeda in the heart of the Arab world,” he argued. But in response to questioning from Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the about-to-be GOP nominee for president, Petraeus said that Al Qaeda was significantly weaker than it was pre-surge.

It was an awkward moment: the two men represent the best political hopes for the war to continue. Yet McCain was trying to get Petraeus to say that Al Qaeda in Iraq remained a powerful foe, and Petraeus, sensitive to the implication that his strategy might not have been a smashing success, was trying to say that it had been badly beaten. (Just not badly to claim victory.) If ever there was an example of the strategic fog of the pro-war crowd, it was that exchange.

The second problem was that the war is only getting less popular — and is a massive albatross around the political necks of the Republican Party. Rep. Don Payne (D-N.J.) warned Petraeus that his recommendations are well and good, but the public will render the decisive judgment on the war come Election Day.

Yet Petraeus defied expectations in one sense. He did not exhibit much deference to his potential Democratic bosses. At times, he appeared downright dismissive of the idea that anti-war forces might have a point. He repeatedly said that dire consequences would follow a precipitous withdrawal, but declined to answer a question from House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Howard Berman (D- Calif.) how he would mitigate those consequences if ordered to implement a withdrawal.

When asked by Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) — a decided moderate in both outlook and temperament — if reasonable people could disagree about the way forward in Iraq, Petraeus replied, “Lots of things in life are arguable.” He sounded more like Donald Rumsfeld than the officer who has become a national hero.

More substantively, Petraeus twice refused to say that he would be prepared to either design or execute a plan for withdrawal should a new (read: Democratic) president order one. Aware that what he was saying edged up to the line of insubordination, he added, “Let me state up front that I absolutely support the idea of civilian control of the military. We do not work for ourselves.” Yet he did not say either that he would resign on principle if asked to implement a strategy he did not support, or that he would ultimately salute and follow orders.

Petraeus may not have to worry. He has not said if he will seek a new term as Iraq commander after his tour ends this fall. Given the possibility of an Iraq dove winning the presidential election, he may very well decide to execute a withdrawal of his own.

Whether he held the line against the Congress is one thing. But not even a popular, respected and impressive general would be able to thwart the wishes of an anti-war electoral majority. A wise one would not attempt to do so.

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