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These Are Not the Petraeus Hearings

While this post serves, I think, as a good introduction to the next two days’ worth of Capitol Hill testimony on Afghanistan from Gen. Stanley McChrystal and Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, let’s take it a step further. The comparison with Gen. David Petraeus’ dramatic September 2007 Iraq hearings may be inevitable. Both featured respected military leaders testifying in favor of a counterinsurgency strategy, associated with a controversial increase of U.S. troops, to turn around the fortunes of a deteriorating war. But that’s where the similarities end.

Leave the substance of the differences between Afghanistan and Iraq aside for a moment. When Petraeus testified in 2007, there was a vastly different set of political dynamics at work. First, Petraeus had stated in his confirmation hearing in January 2007 that he would give Congress an operational update in the fall — and if the strategy was ultimately futile, he told lawmakers, he would step forward and say so. After a series of unsuccessful legislative maneuvers in the summer to kill the surge at a time of increased U.S. casualties, the Democratic majority still had at least some expectation that Petraeus would provide them cover for ending the hated war. He didn’t — quite the opposite — and this was as much as they got. Now combine that with (a) the heat of a presidential campaign; (b) a congressional majority that had been elected in large part to end the war; and (c) an unpopular administration that subcontracted the war to Petraeus in order to Febreze away the stench of its earlier failings.

None of that is in effect with McChrystal and Eikenberry today. Yes, the Democratic Congress has major misgivings about the war, and about President Obama’s troop increase. But if anything, the residual political glow around Obama is helping reassure the public about the war, as this poll after his West Point speech indicated.

Congressional Republicans have their own set of thorny political problems with the hearing: how to decouple McChrystal from Obama in order to back the war while opposing the commander-in-chief. They’ve got three main avenues of argument: opposing the July 2011 “inflection point” for beginning the transition of security to the Afghan army and police; claiming that Obama “dithered” on the process that led to the revised strategy; and opposing the troop increase as insufficient. But judging from the public statements McChrystal has already made after West Point, he’s embraced the strategy, the process that led to it, and said he has “the resources to accomplish our task.” The likelihood that he’s going to use the hearings to give Obama’s political adversaries material to bash the president is, to say the least, rather low.

On that point, at least, the McChrystal hearings have something in common with the Petraeus hearings.

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