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Does Petraeus Have the Answers?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, September 10, 2007; 1:28 PM

It will come as a surprise to absolutely no one that Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. military commander in Iraq, and U.S Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker want Congress to give them more time.

But to what end?

The real newsworthiness of today's congressional testimony from those two gentlemen will depend on their being asked the right questions -- and on how they answer them.

There has been no shortage of suggestions about what Congress should ask. The Los Angeles Times editorial board writes that "the key questions on which we are most eager to hear the views of Petraeus and Crocker are these: What is the least dreadful strategy for winding up U.S. military involvement in Iraq? What can be done to minimize the inevitable American and Iraqi casualties as the U.S. withdraws its troops? Which political, military and diplomatic actions are most likely to reduce the length and ferocity of the ongoing Iraqi civil war and the risk of intervention by Iraq's neighbors, during and after the U.S. disengagement? And how best can the United States mitigate the massive crisis of Iraqi refugees?"

The New York Times op-ed page asked six experts for questions they would pose. Among them:

"General Petraeus, has the surge bought us anything more enduring than fleeting tactical victories? . . .

"You have described your mission as 'buying time for Iraqis to reconcile.' How will we know when reconciliation is occurring? Please explain how American collaboration with Sunni insurgents lends itself to this larger process of reconciliation."

Meanwhile, Fred Kaplan writes for Slate: "After the surge, what? What is the new strategy? What are the core missions of U.S. forces? Where should they go, and what should they do there? What can they accomplish, with a fair chance of success, at reduced levels? And what is the meaning of success?"

Brian Katulis offers yet another set of questions in his post on washingtonpost.com's Think Tank Town blog:

"Is any increased stability in Iraq the result of population displacements and sectarian cleansing? . . .

"What is the 'bottom-up' reconciliation plan for southern and northern Iraq? . . .

"What is the plan for integrating irregular Sunni forces into Iraq's national government?"

And former Clinton defense secretary secretary William Perry offered more questions during the course of his testimony before the House Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees last week:

"Since the surge began earlier this year, how well has the Iraqi government used the breathing space it provided?

"How much longer will coalition forces be needed to provide breathing space for the Iraqi government?

"In order to achieve American goals in Iraq, how much longer will American forces be needed at or near present levels in Iraq? Is the readiness level of American contingency forces today adequate to meet plausible contingencies?

"If present or near-present levels of troops are needed in 2008 in Iraq, how will the replacement forces be provided, and what will this do to the readiness levels of our contingency forces?"

The implicit question in Steven Simon and Ray Takeyh's Los Angeles Times op-ed: Does what any of you say matter? Simon and Takeyh write: "The intense focus on Gen. David H. Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker obscures the essential irrelevance of the report they will make to Congress on Monday and, in a larger sense, the irrelevance of U.S. troops to Iraqi politics. The pacification of a few pockets of resistance can scarcely reconcile Iraq's warring factions or salvage the American enterprise. The future of Iraq hinges on the outcome of its raging civil war, not on any recalibration of U.S. military strategy."

Here's CBS News's Bob Schieffer on his Face the Nation commentary yesterday: "We haven't lost this war, but we're not winning it. We're hanging on. Victory would be obvious. Iraqi families would be strolling the streets of Baghdad, and Osama bin Laden would be walking out of a cave somewhere with his hands up.

"Instead of that question, let's hope the general will be asked what we so often forgot during Vietnam: Is this worth the cost in lives and money? . . .

"What we need to know now is whether keeping a large American military force in Iraq is the best way to make America safer. To me, that's the real question."

Even the pro-war Washington Post editorial board raises some tough questions: "If Iraqis are not moving toward political reconciliation, what justifies a continuing commitment of U.S. troops, with the painful sacrifices in lives that entails? U.S. generals have said repeatedly that tactical military successes will be unsustainable without political breakthroughs. . . . If there is to be no political accord in the near future -- and such an accord seems as distant today as it did in January -- what will be the goals of the U.S. mission in Iraq? The president needs to spell out concrete and realistic aims for American forces -- and limit troop levels to those necessary to accomplish them."

A Bit of a Charade

George Packer writes in the New Yorker: "The Petraeus-Crocker testimony is the kind of short-lived event on which the Administration has relied to shore up support for the war: the 'Mission Accomplished' declaration, the deaths of Uday and Qusay Hussein, Saddam's capture, the transfer of sovereignty, the three rounds of voting, the Plan for Victory, the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Every new milestone, however illusory, allows the Administration to avoid thinking ahead, to the years when the mistakes of Iraq will continue to haunt the U.S.

"The media have largely followed the Administration's myopic approach to the war, and there is likely to be intense coverage of the congressional testimony. But the inadequacy of the surge is already clear, if one honestly assesses the daily lives of Iraqis."

Michael Duffy writes in Time: "It's all a bit of a charade. The president has had little or no intention of changing course since he adopted the surge strategy in January.

"Certainly not this soon. The surge's architects had always imagined the U.S. offensive would take 18 months to work -- and maybe more. Bush officials bought themselves a lot of time (and margin) last winter by saying the surge might only last a few months and involve only 20,000 troops. But that was a snow job; it took five months just to get the troops into position, and a force of some 30,000 troops is involved now.

"Congress was skeptical from the start and demanded a progress report after nine months. But the Bush Administration never intended to treat this checkpoint as a moment of decision; it has regarded it from the start merely as a speed bump."

The New York Times editorial board writes: "Mr. Bush, deeply unpopular with the American people, is counting on the general to restore credibility to his discredited Iraq policy. He frequently refers to the escalation of American forces last January as General Petraeus's strategy -- as if it were not his own creation. The situation echoes the way Mr. Bush made Colin Powell -- another military man with an overly honed sense of a soldier's duty -- play frontman at the United Nations in 2003 to make the case that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Mr. Bush cannot once again subcontract his responsibility. This is his war. . . .

"Waving off the independent reports, he plans to stay the course and make his successor fix his Iraq fiasco. Military progress without political progress is meaningless, and Mr. Bush no more has a plan for unifying Iraq now than when he started the war. The United States needs a prudent exit strategy that will withdraw American forces and try to stop Iraq's chaos from spreading."

Frank Rich writes in his New York Times opinion column (subscription required) that the relevant anniversary this week is not so much 9/11 but "Sept. 8, 2002. What happened on that Sunday five years ago is the Rosetta Stone for the administration's latest scam.

"That was the morning when the Bush White House officially rolled out its fraudulent case for the war. The four horsemen of the apocalypse -- Cheney, Rumsfeld, Powell and Rice -- were dispatched en masse to the Washington talk shows, where they eagerly pointed to a front-page New York Times article amplifying subsequently debunked administration claims that Saddam had sought to buy aluminum tubes meant for nuclear weapons. 'We don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud,' said Condoleezza Rice on CNN, introducing a sales pitch concocted by a White House speechwriter.

"What followed was an epic propaganda onslaught of distorted intelligence, fake news, credulous and erroneous reporting by bona fide journalists, presidential playacting and Congressional fecklessness."

The Philadelphia Daily News editorial board writes that it is "clear that President Bush has no intention of bringing troops home from Iraq while he's president.

"In fact, it's worse: he wants to make sure the next president can't either. . . .

"In a new book by Robert Draper, the president told the author that when it comes to Iraq, 'I'm playing for October-November.' . . .

"Elsewhere in this new book, the president muses about 'replenishing the ol' coffers' by charging huge fees for speaking engagements when he's out of office, and getting 'bored' and then hopping in his truck and going back to the ranch.

"What a nice luxury that will be, to feel no guilty conscience for making it more difficult, not easier, for the next president to safely bring our troops home. How lovely it will be to get $75,000 a pop to give a speech to a corporation, while the troops you sent into war toil in 130-degree heat, and you made sure they'd stay there long after you left office.

"To the president, who curiously used the word 'playing' to describe his war strategy, this is indeed a game, and he's looking for his checkmate. To him, there's no real lives involved, and if progress reports don't look good, either change the benchmarks or use it as an excuse to stay longer - but never, ever, change the course."

Harvard Professor Graham Allison blogs on Huffingtonpost.com: "The essence of Greek tragedy is that protagonists move inexorably to a climax the audience can anticipate before the characters discover their fate. As the curtain rises for Washington's battle over Iraq, Congressional leaders must reject the role President Bush has scripted for them in his Iraq tragedy. Otherwise, in January 2009, a newly-elected president will find himself or herself waist deep in a quagmire that will dominate their one term presidency.

"No one should have any doubt about President Bush's overriding operational objective. It is to hand over this war to his successor. In his own words: 'I will not withdraw even if Laura and Barney [his dog] are the only ones supporting me.' To this end he will do and say whatever is necessary."

Poll Watch: Skepticism Prevails

Jon Cohen and Jennifer Agiesta write in The Washington Post: "Most Americans think this week's report from Army Gen. David H. Petraeus will exaggerate progress in Iraq, and few expect it to result in a major shift in President Bush's policy. . . .

"The findings, from a new Washington Post-ABC News poll, underscore the depth of public antipathy toward the Iraq war, the doubts about the administration's policies and the limited confidence in the Iraqi government to meet its commitments to restore civil order.

"Fifty-eight percent, a new high, said they want to decrease the number of U.S. troops in Iraq. And most of those who advocated a troop reduction said they want the drawdown to begin either right away or by the end of the year. A majority, 55 percent, supported legislation that would set a deadline of next spring for the withdrawal of American combat forces. That figure is unchanged from July. . . .

"The public's baseline judgment on the war is little changed -- more than six in 10 said the war is not worth fighting, a sentiment that has been a majority view for nearly three years."

Bush's approval rating remains at his all-time low of 33 percent.

CNN reports: "A majority of Americans don't trust the upcoming report by the Army's top commander in Iraq on the progress of the war and even if they did, it wouldn't change their mind, according to a new poll. . . .

"CNN Polling Director Keating Holland said he doesn't think the mistrust is directed at Petraeus as much as it is what he represents."

Susan Page writes for USA Today: "On the eve of critical testimony to Congress by Gen. David Petraeus, most Americans are skeptical of what he will say and support setting a timetable to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq regardless of the military situation there.

"A USA Today/Gallup Poll taken Friday and Saturday finds that a White House push to spotlight progress in Iraq, including President Bush's surprise stop in Anbar province last week, hasn't fundamentally changed attitudes toward the war.....

"A record 60% say the United States should set a timetable to withdraw forces 'and stick to that timetable regardless of what is going on in Iraq.'

"'The president's message has been offset by a stream of credible analyses that things are in pretty bad shape,' says Richard Eichenberg, a political scientist at Tufts."

Steven Lee Myers and Megan Thee write in the New York Times: "Only 5 percent of Americans -- a strikingly low number for a sitting president's handling of such a dominant issue -- said they most trusted the Bush administration to resolve the war, the poll found. Asked to choose among the administration, Congress and military commanders, 21 percent said they would most trust Congress and 68 percent expressed most trust in military commanders.

"That is almost certainly why the White House has presented General Petraeus and Mr. Crocker as unbiased professionals, not Bush partisans. President Bush has said for years that decisions about force levels should be left to military commanders, although the decision to send an additional 20,000 troops to Iraq this year and keep them there was not uniformly supported by military leaders. It was primarily made in the White House, and specifically by the president in his role as commander in chief. . . .

"There is a deepening disillusion over the war's course and its purpose, with the highest numbers of Americans, 62 percent, saying that the war was a mistake, and 59 percent saying that it was not worth the loss of American lives and other costs. . . .

"Nearly two-thirds of Americans said the United States should reduce its troops in Iraq now or withdraw them. Asked if a timetable should be established for a 2008 withdrawal, a position many Democrats in Congress have advocated, 64 percent favored doing so."

Here are the Times poll results. Bush's approval rating is at 30 percent, near his historic low in that poll.

Poll Watch: Iraq Edition

Gary Langer writes for ABC News: "Apart from a few scattered gains, a new national survey by ABC News, the BBC and the Japanese broadcaster NHK finds deepening dissatisfaction with conditions in Iraq, lower ratings for the national government and growing rejection of the U.S. role there. . . .

"More Iraqis say security in their local area has gotten worse in the last six months than say it's gotten better, 31 percent to 24 percent, with the rest reporting no change. Far more, six in 10, say security in the country overall has worsened since the surge began, while just one in 10 sees improvement. . . .

"More than six in 10 now call the U.S.-led invasion of their country wrong, up from 52 percent last winter. Fifty-seven percent call violence against U.S. forces acceptable, up six points. And despite the uncertainties of what might follow, 47 percent now favor the immediate withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq -- a 12-point rise. . . .

"Similarly, disapproval of [Nouri al-]Maliki's performance as prime minister is up by nine points, to 66 percent. His approval rating, 33 percent overall (very similar to George W. Bush's), has fallen by 10 points since winter, including by 13 points among Shiites and by 27 points among Kurds.

Take the Kurds out of the equation and the numbers are even more dire: "Seventy-nine percent of Iraqis oppose the presence of coalition forces in the country, essentially unchanged from last winter -- including more than eight in 10 Shiites and nearly all Sunni Arabs. (Seven in 10 Kurds, by contrast, still support the presence of these forces.)"

The Petraeus Factor

Michael Abramowitz writes in The Washington Post that "the White House and its allies are feuding with congressional Democrats over the credibility and independence of one of today's star witnesses, Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the commander of U.S. forces there. . . .

"In a response to President Bush's radio address on Saturday, Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said that Petraeus's assessment, before arriving on Capitol Hill, will pass 'through the White House spin machine, where facts are often ignored or twisted, and intelligence is cherry-picked.' . . .

"MoveOn.org, a leading antiwar group, will be even more critical in a full-page advertisement to run today in the New York Times, describing Petraeus as 'General Betray Us' and a 'military man constantly at war with the facts.' The ad accuses Petraeus of 'cooking the books for the White House,' citing the general's claims of reduced violence in Iraq. It also refers to his statement before the 2004 election that he was seeing 'tangible progress' in rebuilding Iraqi security forces, a statement many experts now consider excessively optimistic

"The Bush administration and its surrogates hit back hard, saying the Democrats are unable to accept good news about the war and are unfairly attacking the messenger. 'Attacking the integrity of uniformed officers is unseemly, but it now looks like MoveOn is writing their talking points,' White House spokesman Tony Fratto said."

Meanwhile, Michael R. Gordon writes in the New York Times that Petraeus "has recommended that decisions on the contentious issue of reducing the main body of the American troops in Iraq be put off for six months, American officials said Sunday. . . .

"In effect, the much-awaited September debate in Congress over Iraq would become a prelude for another set of potentially difficult deliberations next year."

Reality Check

Leila Fadel writes for McClatchy Newspapers: "When President Bush announced in January what the White House called a "New Way Forward" in Iraq, he said that Iraqi and American troops would improve security while the Iraqi government improved services. Responsibility for security in most of Iraq would be turned over to Iraqi security forces by November.

"With better security would come the breathing room needed for political reconciliation, Bush said.

"With less than a week to go before the White House delivers a congressionally mandated report on that plan, none of this has happened."

Fadel writes that despite all the official expressions of hopefulness, "interviews with Iraqis, statistics on violence gathered independently by McClatchy Newspapers and a review of developments in the country since the U.S. began increasing troop strength here last February provide little reason for optimism."

Internal Dissent

Peter Baker, Karen DeYoung, Thomas E. Ricks, Ann Scott Tyson, Joby Warrick and Robin Wright write in The Washington Post about the dissent within Bush's own administration regarding the surge and its prospects.

For instance, they mention a discussion in the White House Situation Room a week ago: "For two hours, President Bush listened to contrasting visions of the U.S. future in Iraq. Gen. David H. Petraeus dominated the conversation by video link from Baghdad, making the case to keep as many troops as long as possible to cement any security progress. Adm. William J. Fallon, his superior, argued instead for accepting more risks in Iraq, officials said, in order to have enough forces available to confront other potential threats in the region."

The Post reporters explain: "For Bush, the eight months since announcing his 'new way forward' in Iraq have been about not just organizing a major force deployment but also managing a remarkable conflict within his administration, mounting a rear-guard action against Congress and navigating a dysfunctional relationship with an Iraqi leadership that has proved incapable of delivering what he needs. . . .

"Amid the uncertainty, the overriding imperative for Bush these past eight months has been to buy time -- time for the surge to work, time for the Iraqis to get their act together, time to produce progress."

(And, if I might add: Time to pass this along to his successor.)

The Post reporters disclose that the White House was in a tizzy after Bush's prime-time speech on Jan. 10. (I sure didn't think much of it.) They write: "The notion that the president was sending even more troops to Iraq after an antiwar public turned control of Congress over to the Democrats exasperated many in the capital. The visceral reaction induced near-panic among some in the White House."

And to Bush, suggesting that troops could start coming home anytime soon apparently has been seen as political poison. The Post reports that in early July, as some establishment Republicans were breaking with his policy, "[a]ides urged Bush to emphasize that the troop buildup would lead to eventual withdrawals once security was established. The president rejected that, concluding that if he 'showed leg,' as one aide put it, it would only encourage more Republicans to defect."

The New Plan: Withdrawal on His Own Terms?

But now, Michael Abramowitz writes in The Post: "President Bush has sought to reframe the domestic political battle over the war, putting himself in a position to do something his critics have long advocated: Begin drawing down the huge U.S. troop presence. . . .

"Leon E. Panetta, a Clinton White House chief of staff and a member of the Iraq Study Group, said yesterday that the president does not want to be seen as being forced into anything -- but can now claim that military progress makes it possible to begin a process of withdrawal. . . .

"Others close to the president suggest that he may be motivated by two other factors. One is the looming end of his presidency and his desire to put Iraq policy on a more sustainable basis for the next president. The other is that the president knows he will have to begin withdrawing troops by April, as 15-month troop rotations come to a close. That means the pressure is on for an alternative strategy, with a smaller force structure in Iraq."

Bush is expected to address the nation on Thursday evening.

David E. Sanger writes in the New York Times: "While it is unclear what Mr. Bush will say when he addresses the country, it does seem clear that he will no longer insist on 'victory,' in the way he used the term in 2005, before troops can come home. Something more akin to Nixon's 'Peace With Honor' appears to be in the cards, officials say, rewritten and updated for a very different kind of war. . . .

"Until a week ago, every presidential speech, every bit of military testimony, was about the need to persevere, and to add troops. Starting Monday, the new argument seems almost certainly to be about how fast or how cautiously to draw down, and what would constitute a 'sustainable' presence in a country that even most of the Democratic presidential candidates acknowledge will require a major American presence for years to come."

Sanger writes that the "hard part" will be "easing Mr. Bush, a man who revels in his own steadfastness, out of the straitjacket of his past optimistic pronouncements about what must be accomplished. . . .

"'There's a lot of scar tissue that everyone has to cut through around here,' said one senior administration official, who has been surprised by the degree to which Mr. Bush and his longtime aides are trapped by their own vision, and past statements, of how success in Iraq would transform the Middle East. One former senior official, brought in for consultations recently to the White House, said he now feared that Tehran, not the United States, had the greater influence over events in Iraq. 'There was silence in the room,' he said."

Democratic Impotence

Shailagh Murray and Dan Balz write in The Washington Post: "In the past eight months, there have been multiple resolutions opposing the troop increase, numerous proposals to establish timetables for withdrawal, plans to repeal the original congressional authorization that gave Bush the power to go to war and even an effort to cut off funds for the conflict. But Democrats have not succeeded in forcing a single, substantial change in the president's policy, and they have watched Congress's approval rating, as measured by the Gallup Poll, slide to the lowest recorded since Gallup began measuring in 1974."

Neil King Jr. and Greg Jaffe write in the Wall Street Journal (subscription required): "Despite talk of a possible bipartisan compromise in the Senate, the Democrats' calculus for forcing a real shift in strategy looks far less favorable now than it did earlier this summer, when efforts to force a drawdown of U.S. forces fell short of the needed votes. Lawmakers in both parties now acknowledge that, with Congress unlikely to muster sufficient votes to force a sharp reduction in troops, the decision on how and when to disengage from Iraq will almost certainly fall to the next president."

Bin Laden Watch

What's the appropriate, mature response to a new video showing that our public enemy No. 1 is alive and well? Surely not to goad him -- or quote him.

And yet, Ben Feller writes for the Associated Press: "Seemingly taunting Osama bin Laden, President Bush's homeland security adviser said Sunday the fugitive al-Qaida leader is 'virtually impotent' beyond his ability to hide away and spread anti-American propaganda.

"The provocative characterization came just days after bin Laden attracted international attention with the release of a video in which he ridicules President Bush about the Iraq war and reminds the world that he not been captured.

"Ahead of the sixth anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist strikes, White House aide Frances Fragos Townsend made a clear attempt to diminish the influence -- or the perception -- of the man who masterminded those attacks.

"'This is about the best he can do,' Townsend said of bin Laden. 'This is a man on a run, from a cave, who's virtually impotent other than these tapes.'

"In appearance on two Sunday talk shows, she used the 'virtually impotent' reference both times, suggesting the language was chosen with careful purpose."

And here's Bush's reaction to the bin Laden tape on Saturday in Australia: "I found it interesting that on the tape Iraq was mentioned, which is a reminder that Iraq is a part of this war against extremists. If al Qaeda bothers to mention Iraq it's because they want to achieve their objectives in Iraq, which is to drive us out and to develop a safe haven. And the reason they want a safe haven is to launch attacks against America, or any other ally. And therefore, it's important that we show resolve and determination, to protect ourselves, to deny al Qaeda safe haven, and to support young democracies, which will be a major defeat to their ambitions."

Why didn't Bush react with fury to evidence that bin Laden is still alive? Why didn't he tell Americans not to listen to a word that vile mass murderer said?

Bush has had a long, complicated and clearly conflicted history of speaking about bin Laden. See for instance my August 2004 column, The Unnamed Enemy, and my July column, Al Qaeda's Best Publicist.

Part of Bush's internal conflict may have something to do with this: As Tom Lasseter and Jonathan S. Landay write for McClatchy Newspapers: "[T]he Bush administration's campaign in Iraq has diverted troops, money and equipment from the hunt for bin Laden since late 2001."

First Lady Watch

The Associated Press reports: "First lady Laura Bush underwent surgery Saturday to relieve pain from pinched nerves in her neck. The White House said the procedure was successful. . . .

"Mrs. Bush underwent the 2 1/2-hour procedure at The George Washington University Hospital."

Cartoon Watch

Tom Toles, Ann Telnaes and Stuart Carlson on Bush's report; Steve Kelley on crying; John Sherffius on the great seal.

Late Night Humor

Jay Leno, via U.S. News: "President Bush called the APEC conference the OPEC conference. He called the Australian troops Austrian troops. And he left the stage the wrong way. He was given the wrong information when he got there, he stumbled when he was there, and couldn't figure out how to leave. It's like Iraq all over again."

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