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Mission Accomplished

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, September 11, 2007; 12:22 PM

There is a recurring theme in many of the news analyses and opinion pieces about yesterday's congressional testimony by Gen. David H. Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker. See if you can spot it.

Paul Richter writes in the Los Angeles Times: "The talk in Washington on Monday was all about troop reductions, yet it also brought into sharp focus President Bush's plans to end his term with a strong U.S. military presence in Iraq, and to leave tough decisions about ending the unpopular war to his successor.

"The plans outlined by the U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David H. Petraeus, would retain a large force in the country -- perhaps more than 100,000 troops -- when the time comes for Bush to move out of the White House in January 2009."

While the testimony "made the administration's general goals clear, it left uncertain their thinking on a variety of key issues," Richter writes.

"Nothing new was said, for example, on how the administration intends to try to break apart the governmental gridlock in Baghdad, which has obstructed the administration's plan to bring about national reconciliation through agreements by the national government. . . .

"Also unanswered was what course the administration will take if it turns out that fewer U.S. forces are unable to maintain the current level of security when the five brigades leave by summer.

"Those issues most likely will be left for the next president, whose new job is looking tougher all the time."

Karen DeYoung and Thomas E. Ricks write in The Washington Post: "If Gen. David H. Petraeus has his way, tens of thousands of U.S. troops will be in Iraq for years to come."

Neither Petraeus nor Crocker offered a "clear pathway or timeline to reach the end," DeYoung and Ricks write.

"Judging by the relatively mild congressional reaction in a joint hearing of the House Foreign Affairs and Armed Services Committees, Petraeus and Crocker may well succeed this week in deflecting Democratic demands to bring the troops home sooner rather than later. They are likely to face tougher questioning -- and stiffer challenges to the emerging trends they described -- from two Senate committees today. But by the time President Bush speaks to the nation later this week, September's much-anticipated battle over Iraq policy may be all but over."

David S. Cloud and Thom Shanker write in the New York Times: "Gen. David H. Petraeus, the senior American commander in Iraq, warned in stark terms against the kind of rapid pullback favored by the Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, in a day of testimony on Monday that drove home the continuing inability of the Democrats to force a change in strategy in Iraq. . . .

"The hearings had been expected to provoke an epic confrontation between opponents of the war and its front-line leaders. But that conflict did not fully materialize Monday, in part because only a few Democrats on two House committees seemed inclined to dispute with much vigor the assessments provided by a commander with medals on his chest and four stars on his shoulders."

Susan Page writes in USA Today: "Those who wanted to hear a new plan charted by Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker didn't get one. Instead, the two men asked a restive Democrat-led Congress to wait until at least next March before trying to reshape the U.S. mission or bring home most American troops. . . .

"[W]hat had been cast as a potentially defining day for U.S. policy in Iraq seemed like something else: a clear sign that the political standoff over Iraq is unlikely to end anytime soon."

Eugene Robinson writes in his Washington Post opinion column: "The next six months in Iraq are crucial -- and always will be. That noise you heard yesterday on Capitol Hill was the can being kicked further down the road leading to January 2009, when George W. Bush gets to hand off his Iraq fiasco to somebody else.

"It's clear by now that playing for time is the real White House strategy for Iraq. Everything else is tactical maneuver and rhetorical legerdemain -- nothing up my sleeve -- with which the administration is buying time, roughly in six-month increments."

One key aspect of that strategy: "[I]f anyone mentions that Congress is supposed to decide what wars this nation fights, not generals or diplomats? Attack them for impugning our nation's finest -- and give that can another kick."

E.J. Dionne Jr. writes in his Washington Post opinion column that the surge "has bought more political time in Washington, bringing Bush closer than ever to reaching one of his main objectives: keeping large numbers of troops in Iraq beyond Election Day 2008. . . .

"Through a hard sell of the surge in the past six weeks, Bush has held most of his party in line. Petraeus's central political objective was more to reassure Republicans than to persuade Democrats. Given the president's veto power and the Democrats' slim majorities in the House and Senate, this may be enough to keep American troops heavily committed in Iraq for the rest of Bush's term."

Matt Welch writes in a Los Angeles Times opinion column: "Gen. Petraeus will get his six more months of surge, even though Democrats claim it's failing and the public has long since given up hope. We'll all reconvene next spring, by which time the goalposts should be moved sufficiently enough that I can plan on writing the exact same column on the seventh anniversary of Sept. 11 as well."

Charles H. Ferguson blogs for washingtonpost.com: "How convenient that they predict it will be possible to begin withdrawing troops just a few months before the next presidential election. How sad that such good men as General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker are being misused in this way. And how clear it seems that any realistic, honest reassessment of U.S. policy in Iraq must come from Congress and from the next president, rather than from this administration."

Andrew J. Bacevich blogs for washingtonpost.com: "Petraeus seems to hope that with the passage of time, Iraqi political leaders will get their act together. But hope makes a poor basis for strategy.

"Petraeus's recommendation to kick the can down the road will suit the Bush administration, which is determined neither to confront nor to acknowledge responsibility for the debacle it has created. But his recommendation will not suit the soldiers he commands, the army to which he has devoted his life, or the nation he serves.

"The moment calls for an assessment and recommendations that cut to the heart of the matter. Instead, Petraeus has temporized. History will not judge his hesitation kindly."

The New York Times editorial board writes: "For months, President Bush has been promising an honest accounting of the situation in Iraq, a fresh look at the war strategy and a new plan for how to extricate the United States from the death spiral of the Iraqi civil war. The nation got none of that yesterday from the Congressional testimony by Gen. David Petraeus, the top military commander in Iraq, and Ambassador Ryan Crocker. It got more excuses for delaying serious decisions for many more months, keeping the war going into 2008 and probably well beyond.

"It was just another of the broken promises and false claims of success that we've heard from Mr. Bush for years, from shock and awe, to bouquets of roses, to mission accomplished and, most recently, to a major escalation that was supposed to buy Iraqi leaders time to unify their nation."

Howard Fineman writes for Newsweek: "Bottom line: Americans will go to the polls on Nov. 4, 2008 with basically the same Iraq policy in place as we have now. All of the rest is the sound and fury of political positioning. If the American people want to end this war faster, they will have to vote to do so -- again, since that is what most of them thought they were doing in 2006."

What They Said (and Didn't Say)

Peter Baker and Jonathan Weisman write in The Washington Post: "Army Gen. David H. Petraeus told Congress yesterday that the deployment of 30,000 more troops to Iraq has made enough progress that the additional combat forces can be pulled out by next summer, but he cautioned against 'rushing to failure' with a larger and speedier withdrawal. . . .

"The drawdown Petraeus presented moves up the previous military timetable that would have governed the troop increase barring any change in military policy. Military planners have said that the extra forces would have to begin withdrawing in April and that all would be out by August. Petraeus effectively proposed starting sooner but finishing by nearly the same deadline."

Michael R. Gordon writes in the New York Times that Petraeus "proposed an American presence that would not only be longer and larger than many Democrats have advocated but would also provide for a greater American combat role in protecting the Iraqi population. . . .

"The American commander was not only rebuffing the demand for a firm timeline for withdrawing the bulk of American forces, but also putting critics on notice that even when reductions come he has a different vision of the manner in which many of the remaining troops would be used."

Nancy A. Youssef and Leila Fadel write for McClatchy Newspapers: "The Bush administration's top two officials in Iraq answered questions from Congress for more than six hours on Monday, but their testimony may have been as important for what they didn't say as for what they did.

"A chart displayed by Army Gen. David Petraeus that purported to show the decline in sectarian violence in Baghdad between December and August made no effort to show that the ethnic character of many of the neighborhoods had changed in that same period from majority Sunni Muslim or mixed to majority Shiite Muslim.

"Neither Petraeus nor U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker talked about the fact that since the troop surge began the pace by which Iraqis were abandoning their homes in search of safety had increased. They didn't mention that 86 percent of Iraqis who've fled their homes said they'd been targeted because of their sect, according to the International Organization for Migration. . . .

"Petraeus also didn't highlight the fact that his charts showed that 'ethno-sectarian' deaths in August, down from July, were still higher than in June, and he didn't explain why the greatest drop in such deaths, which peaked in December, occurred between January and February, before the surge began.

"And while both officials said that the Iraqi security forces were improving, neither talked about how those forces had been infiltrated by militias, though Petraeus acknowledged that during 2006 some Iraqi security forces had participated in the ethnic violence."

Alissa J. Rubin and Damien Cave write in the New York Times from Baghdad: "The assessment that Ryan C. Crocker, the American ambassador to Iraq, gave to Congress on Monday left unmentioned or glossed over some of the most troubling developments of the past nine months. His portrait of Iraq did not include many of the signs of deepening divisions between Sunni Arabs and Shiites and within each sect, which have raised fears among many Iraqis that their country will fracture further.

"His testimony did not address the continuing wave of internal displacements, only glancingly mentioned Baghdad's starved infrastructure and said almost nothing about the government's inability or unwillingness to deliver services to other parts of the country as well.

"His description of the growth of provincial power neglected to mention its darker side: Some provinces are becoming rival power centers and could as easily contribute to the country's disintegration as to its stability."

Ann Scott Tyson writes in The Washington Post that what Petraeus calls a "very substantial withdrawal" does no more than bring U.S. forces closer to the pre-surge level of about 130,000 troops by the end of next summer.

Washington Post military reporter Tom Ricks was liveblogging the testimony for washingtonpost.com and shared some fascinating observations. In one post, Ricks noted: "One problem with hearings is that they tend to be sprawling affairs. Today's has been especially disjointed, as it combined two full committees.

"The result, I think, is a feeling of a lack of direction. Republicans have spent a lot of time defending General Petraeus, who doesn't really seem to need their help. And Democrats just seem in despair, and certainly not speaking with one voice, or offering a clear alternative.

"In this case, the tie goes to the administration. So it looks like the U.S. may have troops fighting and dying in Iraq for years to come."

Watch the Rhetoric

In another post, Ricks wrote: "The more I listen, the more I think today's message from Petraeus and Crocker is that they think that keeping U.S. forces in Iraq for years to come isn't a great idea, but is better than any other idea they see out there."

Indeed, while Petraeus and Crocker were doing exactly what the White House needed them to do, they didn't do it with the same sort of rhetoric, enthusiasm or even optimism that you normally hear from Bush and his White House aides.

As DeYoung and Ricks write in their Post article, the two men did not "cast the war in terms the White House is fond of using -- a global fight against terrorism, where failure would threaten the U.S. homeland. Iran and al-Qaeda in Iraq are both problems, Petraeus said. But 'the fundamental source of the conflict in Iraq is competition among ethnic and sectarian communities for power and resources.'"

Also lacking: Much of a sense of history. "Neither Petraeus nor Crocker mentioned the nearly 4 1/2 years of U.S. military involvement that began with the March 2003 invasion; both seemed to date U.S. involvement in Iraq as beginning anew with the troop escalation that started early this year."

Here is a transcript of the opening remarks and exchanges yesterday. Here are some "rapid responses" from the Senate and House Democratic leadership.

Credibility Check

Should Petraeus be believed? Democratic Rep. Eliot Engel of New York raised that question in his exchange with the general. Here's the video.

Engel: "The American people are fed up -- I'm fed up -- and essentially what I'm hearing from both of you today is essentially 'stay the course in Iraq.' How long can we put up with staying the course? Young Americans are dying in someone else's civil war, as far as I'm concerned. . . .

"You know, for years we keep hearing rosy, upbeat pictures about Iraq -- 'Victory is right around the corner; things are going well' -- and it never seems to materialize. General Petraeus, I have an article here called ' Battling for Iraq.' It's an op-ed piece that you wrote three years ago in The Washington Post . . . and I want to just quote some of the things you said. You said, 'Now, however, 18 months after entering Iraq, I see tangible progress. Iraqi security elements are being rebuilt from the ground up.' . . .

"You talk about Iraqi police and soldiers, and you say they're 'performing a wide variety of security missions. Training is on track and increasing in capacity.' And finally, you said in this article -- op-ed piece three years ago, 'I meet with Iraqi security forces every day. I have seen the determination and their desire to assume the full burden of security tasks for Iraq. Iraqi security forces are developing steadily, and they are in the fight. Momentum has gathered in recent months.'

"So today you said -- and I'll just quote a few things -- 'Coalition and Iraqi security forces have achieved progress in the security area. Iraqi security forces have also continued to grow and to shoulder more of the load.' And finally you said, 'The progress our forces have achieved with our Iraqi counterparts, as I noted at the outset, has been substantial.'

"So I guess my question really is that, you know, why should we believe that your assessment today is any more accurate than it was three years ago in September 2004? Three years ago I was able to listen to the optimism, but frankly I find it hard to listen now, four years-plus into this war with no end in sight. Optimism is great, but reality is what we really need."

Petraeus's response: "I actually appreciate the opportunity to talk about that op-ed piece because I stand by it." His explanation: That the bombing of the Golden Dome Mosque in Samarra in February 2006 set everything back terribly.

But who's to say there won't be another unpredicted setback in the months and years ahead. Or, as Engel tried to ask Petraeus before running out of time: "Will we be saying the same thing three years from now?"

A Moment of Drama

And here's something that was largely missing at yesterday's hearing: A sense of the dramatic stakes involved, in terms of American (and Iraqi) lives. One exception came in Florida Democratic Rep. Robert Wexler's exchange with Petraeus:

Wexler: "In your testimony today, you claim that the surge is working and that you need more time. With all due respect, General, among unbiased, nonpartisan experts, the consensus is stark; the surge has failed based on most parameters. In truth, war-related deaths have doubled in Iraq in 2007 compared to last year. Tragically, it is my understanding that seven more American troops have died while we've been talking today. . . .

"I am skeptical, General. More importantly, the American people are skeptical because four years ago very credible people both in uniform and not in uniform came before this Congress and sold us a bill of goods that turned out to be false.

"This testimony today is eerily similar to the testimony the American people heard on April 28th, 1967, from General William Westmoreland, when he told the American people America was making progress in Vietnam. . . .

"We've heard a lot today about America's credibility. President Bush recently stated we should not have withdrawn our troops from Vietnam, because of the great damage to America's credibility. General, there are 58,195 names etched into the Vietnam War Memorial. Twenty years from now, when we build the Iraq war memorial on the National Mall, how many more men and women will have been sacrificed to protect our so-called credibility? How many more names will be added to the wall before we admit it is time to leave? How many more names, General?"

Petraeus replied: "No one is more conscious of the loss of life than the commander of the forces. That is something I take and feel very deeply. And if I did not think that this was a hugely important endeavor, and if I did not think that it was an endeavor in which we could succeed, I would not have testified as I did to you all here today."

A Middle Ground?

Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, asked Petraeus to comment on the value of taking an intermediate course, somewhere between "your proposals for a token withdrawal" and "a hypothetical rapid and irresponsible withdrawal."

Said Lantos: "Now, as you know better than I do, there are very impressive members of the military with outstanding credentials who favor a much more rapid, but responsible withdrawal of American forces."

Petraeus insisted that the "very substantial withdrawal" he was suggesting represented his "best professional military advice on how to accomplish the mission."

But Michael Hirsh writes for Newsweek that "a separate internal report being prepared by a Pentagon working group will 'differ substantially' from Petraeus's recommendations, according to an official who is privy to the ongoing discussions but would speak about them only on condition of anonymity. An early version of the report, which is currently being drafted and is expected to be completed by the beginning of next year, will 'recommend a very rapid reduction in American forces: as much as two-thirds of the existing force very quickly, while keeping the remainder there.' The strategy will involve unwinding the still large U.S. presence in big forward operation bases and putting smaller teams in outposts. 'There is interest at senior levels [of the Pentagon] in getting alternative views' to Petraeus, the official said. Among others, Centcom commander Admiral William Fallon is known to want to draw down faster than Petraeus.

"Petraeus's draw-down recommendations have outraged critics of the war who accuse him of merely doing Bush's bidding and adjusting his recommendations to the politics of the Hill. ('General Betray Us,' the leftwing group MoveOn.org called him in a series of newspaper ads on Monday.) Even some supporters of the surge effort wonder whether Petraeus isn't thinking as much about selling the war as winning it."

Bin Laden Watch

Jonathan S. Landay writes for McClatchy Newspapers: "Contradicting President Bush's counter-terrorism adviser, U.S. intelligence and law enforcement chiefs and a Cabinet member said Monday that Osama bin Laden remained the most dangerous terrorist threat to the United States six years after the 9-11 attacks.

"Eliminating the threat that the al Qaida leader and his inner circle pose from their sanctuary in Pakistan's remote tribal region bordering Afghanistan 'is our number one priority,' Director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell told a Senate committee.

"The assessments by McConnell, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and FBI Director Robert Mueller came a day after White House homeland security adviser Frances Fragos Townsend called bin Laden 'a man on the run from a cave who is virtually impotent other than these tapes.'"

This morning on CNN, Townsend sounded less dismissive: "Obviously, catching Bin Laden is a huge priority for us, and American military and intelligence assets are deployed against that. And I'm confident that eventually we are going to get him. But we've had many successes against the network, and that's what's really important."

Liberal blogger Brad DeLong writes: "If you had asked me six years ago what the odds were that Osama bin Laden would still be living out his allotted lifespan in the fall of 2007, I would have said that the odds were zero.

"No matter how feckless, incompetent, and stupid George W. Bush and his administration are, I would have said, nobody would let an Osama bin Laden kill 3000 Americans in an act of terrorism and survive.

"Silly me."

Opinion Watch

The Los Angeles Times editorial board writes: "America's 'war on terror,' which enters its sixth year today, now seems destined to redefine our nation for a generation or more to come."

The editorial decries the "harrowing consequences of a war waged by an administration that has misunderstood its enemy and its place in history. But the price of this president's military and domestic overreach has been highest in the loss of faith in America itself, in the values and institutions that have historically defined this nation. . . .

"No matter how much he insists otherwise, President Bush lacks [a] fundamental belief in American freedom. As a result, his war has not only subverted U.S. military interests but has undermined the liberties that make this a nation worthy of emulation. That is the tragic and true cost of these past six years."

Book Watch

New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani reviews Jack Goldsmith's new book, "The Terror Presidency."

"The portrait of the Bush administration that Mr. Goldsmith -- who resigned from the Office of Legal Counsel in June 2004, only nine months after assuming the post -- draws in this book is a devastating one. It is a portrait of a highly insular White House obsessively focused on expanding presidential power and loathe to consult with Congress, a White House that frequently made up its mind about a course of action before consulting with experts, a White House that sidelined Congress in its policymaking and willfully pursued a 'go-it-alone approach' based on 'minimal deliberation, unilateral action, and legalistic defense.'

"Similar portraits, of course, have been drawn by reporters and other former administration insiders, but Mr. Goldsmith's account stands out by virtue that he was privy to internal White House debates about explosive matters like secret surveillance, coercive interrogation and the detention and trial of enemy combatants. It is also distinguished by Mr. Goldsmith's writing from the point of view of a conservative who shared many of the Bush White House's objectives. . . . But he found himself alarmed by the Bush White House's obsession with expanding presidential power, its arrogant unilateralism and its willingness to use what he regarded as careless and overly expansive legal arguments in an effort to buttress its policies."

In an excerpt from his book on Slate, Goldsmith writes: "Why did the administration so often assert presidential power in ways that seemed unnecessary and politically self-defeating? The answer, I believe, is that the administration's conception of presidential power had a kind of theological significance that often trumped political consequences. . . .

"But the Bush administration's strategy is guaranteed not to work, and is certain to destroy trust altogether. When an administration makes little attempt to work with the other institutions of our government and makes it a public priority to emphasize that its aim is to expand its power, Congress, the courts, and the public listen carefully, and worry."

Or at least they should.

Salon's Rob Patterson talks to Robert Draper about his new Bush book, "Dead Certain: The Presidency of George W. Bush." Says Draper: "A lot of Americans and people all over the world are taught to just say, 'I'm sorry I screwed up. I've learned from my mistakes, and I will try to do better.' For all of the other aspects of this president that I think are very emotionally honest that I witnessed, that was one aspect that is not -- his difficulty to own up to his mistakes. I think in a way he's like a baseball umpire who feels like if you call a ball a strike, you've got to stick to that. Otherwise people will question you. They will think that your equivocation is a sign of a lack of certainty. . . .

"I think where the rubber meets the road there is that Bush, for all of his talk about him being so comfortable in his own skin, possesses insecurities like the rest of us. And Bush, due to his insecurities, really doesn't like to be challenged. . . .

"This is a guy who really possesses a lot of insecurities, and I think that's why he evinces this sort of incuriosity. There are only certain kinds of challenges that he can deal with. What is admirable about Bush is also part of his insecurity. I think because his insecurity drives him to want to be relevant and want to do big things, he's willing to throw the ball long. And I think that because of that, history is not going to judge this man with indifference. They are not going to judge him as Franklin Pierce. He is either going to go down in history as a disastrous flop or a really monumental president."

Salon also has an excerpt from John W. Dean's new Bush book: "Broken Government."

Rove Watch

Adam Nossiter writes in the New York Times: "House leaders are beginning an investigation this week of the prosecution of Don Siegelman, the former Democratic governor of Alabama who was imprisoned in June on federal corruption charges. The case could become the centerpiece of a Democratic effort to show that the Justice Department engaged in political prosecutions. . . .

"Jill Simpson, an Alabama lawyer who signed an affidavit saying she overheard a Republican political operative connect the prosecution of Mr. Siegelman to Karl Rove, will be questioned under oath this week by investigators for the House Judiciary Committee."

Contempt Watch

John Bresnahan writes for the Politico: "House Democratic leaders have decided to postpone a vote on a criminal contempt resolution against White House chief of staff Joshua Bolten and former White House counsel Harriet Miers for several weeks, and possibly longer, according to top lawmakers and aides."

Cartoon Watch

Tom Toles, John Sherffius and Stuart Carlson on yesterday's testimony; Jim Morin on the war on terror.

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