No Exit

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, April 9, 2008; 1:06 PM

Well, it's official. Getting out of Iraq is now exclusively the next president's problem.

That's the only serious conclusion that can be drawn from yesterday's Senate testimony by Army Gen. David H. Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker. The two standard-bearers for President Bush's war engaged in an absurd tap-dance that nevertheless made it clear that U.S. troops aren't going anywhere anytime soon.


While asserting that "the way forward on reduction should be conditions-based," Petraeus and Crocker were unable or unwilling to say what those conditions might be.

While insisting that the U.S. commitment in Iraq is not open-ended, they described no circumstance in which it would end.

They refused to consider any hypothetical scenarios, except for their own.

They refused to acknowledge that reasonable people might disagree with them.

And, as they demonstrated yesterday and in their testimony last September, no matter what the situation on the ground, they are able to use it as an argument for staying the course.

A few key exchanges tell the story. Here's one with Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton:

Clinton: "What conditions would have to exist for you to recommend to the president that the current strategy is not working? And it seems apparent that you have a conditions-based analysis, as you set forth in your testimony, but the conditions are unclear, they certainly lack specificity, and the decision points, with respect to these conditions, are also vague.

"So how are we to judge, General Petraeus, what the conditions are or should be and the actions that you and the administration would recommend pursuing based on them?"

Petraeus: " . . . With respect to the conditions, Senator, what we have is a number of factors that we will consider by area as we look at where we can make recommendations for further reductions beyond the reduction of the surge forces that will be complete in July."

Here's one with Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama:

Obama: "[T]he problem I have is if the definition of success is so high, no traces of Al Qaida and no possibility of reconstitution, a highly-effective Iraqi government, a Democratic multiethnic, multi- sectarian functioning democracy, no Iranian influence, at least not of the kind that we don't like, then that portends the possibility of us staying for 20 or 30 years.

"If, on the other hand, our criteria is a messy, sloppy status quo but there's not, you know, huge outbreaks of violence, there's still corruption, but the country is struggling along, but it's not a threat to its neighbors and it's not an Al Qaida base, that seems to me an achievable goal within a measurable timeframe, and that, I think, is what everybody here on this committee has been trying to drive at, and we haven't been able to get as clear of an answer as we would like."

The response from Crocker: "And that's because, Senator, is a -- I mean, I don't like to sound like a broken record, but this is hard and this is complicated."

And here's one with Indiana Democrat Evan Bayh:

Bayh: "And I would just ask you the question, isn't it true that a fair amount of humility is in order in rendering judgments about the way forward in Iraq, that no one can speak with great confidence about what is likely to occur? Is that a fair observation?"

Petraeus: "It is very fair, Senator, and it's why I repeatedly noted that we haven't turned any corners, we haven't seen any lights at the end of the tunnel. The champagne bottle has been pushed to the back of the refrigerator. And the progress, while real, is fragile and is reversible."

Bayh: "In fact, reasonable people can differ about the most effective way forward. Is that not also a fair observation?"

Petraeus: "I don't know whether I would go that far, sir . . . "

Bayh: "General, you would not -- you would not mean to say that anyone who would have a different opinion is, by definition, an unreasonable person?"

Petraeus: "Senator, lots of things in life are arguable. And, certainly, there are lots of different opinions out there. But, again, if you -- I believe that the recommendations that I have made are correct."

It's all highly reminiscent of the argument Bush made in the run-up to the war, when he insisted that Saddam Hussein's unwillingness to disclose his weapons of mass destruction meant that he had them. Then, as now, Bush bent logic to justify what he wanted to do anyway.

This time around, at least, there's a bit of pushback.

The Coverage

Karen DeYoung and Thomas E. Ricks write in The Washington Post: "Asked repeatedly yesterday what 'conditions' he is looking for to begin substantial U.S. troop withdrawals from Iraq after this summer's scheduled drawdown, Army Gen. David H. Petraeus said he will know them when he sees them. For frustrated lawmakers, it was not enough.

"'A year ago, the president said we couldn't withdraw because there was too much violence,' said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.). 'Now he says we can't afford to withdraw because violence is down.' Asked Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.): 'Where do we go from here?'

"Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said: 'I think people want a sense of what the end is going to look like.'

"But the bottom line was that there was no bottom line. . . .

"In eight hours of testimony, the two men danced around the question of what constitutes success in Iraq. 'As I've explained, again, from a military perspective,' Petraeus said wearily as the day drew to a close, ' . . . what we want to do is to look at conditions and determine where it is without taking undue risks. This is all about risk.'

"'We'll look at the circumstances and assess,' Crocker said, as he and Petraeus spoke of 'battlefield geometry' and 'political-military calculus.'"

Petraeus announced that his plan -- which has already won Bush's approval -- calls for a reversal of last year's troop buildup, followed by a 45-day "period of consolidation and evaluation" in July, followed by an indefinite period of assessment before any further drawdown.

Peter Baker and Jonathan Weisman write in The Washington Post that such a plan means "all but guaranteeing that about 140,000 troops will remain at least through the fall presidential election. . . .

"[T]he 45-day consolidation period would last until early September. Petraeus repeatedly declined to say how long he would then need to decide whether to bring more troops out, but he would be deliberating in the weeks before Election Day.

"Because it takes a couple of months to withdraw a combat unit once a decision is made, Petraeus's plan means no further significant troop drawdown would take place until November, at the earliest, and yesterday's testimony fueled suspicions about whether any major pullouts would happen during the remainder of Bush's presidency."

Ken Fireman and Kristin Jensen write for Bloomberg: "Voters will choose a new U.S. president in November with as many as 140,000 American troops still in Iraq and no clear plan for extricating them from the unpopular conflict."

Aamer Madhani and Mike Dorning write in the Chicago Tribune: "As the war's architect, Bush has spent five years making the public case for it, cajoling allies for support and battling to stop Congress from setting a timetable for troop withdrawals. But with Bush having successfully ensured that troop levels will remain largely unchanged through the end of his presidency, the debate over how to proceed in the years to come has now, it seems, been left to others."

Peter Grier writes in the Christian Science Monitor that the Petraeus pause "could effectively push major future decisions on Iraq into the administration of the next president. In that sense it could mark the end of President Bush's role in a conflict whose outcome might well define his standing in history."

On ABC's World News, Charlie Gibson and George Stephanopoulous summed up yesterday's testimony this way:

Gibson: "George, did anything change today?"

Stephanopoulous: "Not much, Charlie. I think this was one, big exercise in kicking the can down the road."

Steven Lee Myers and Thom Shanker write in the New York Times: "Mr. Bush is scheduled to outline his policy for the months ahead at the White House on Thursday, and despite relentless questioning on the cost and conduct of the war, Democrats appeared to lack support to force a significant change in his approach."

Bush's Tears

Baker and Weisman write in The Post that Bush made no public comment on the testimony yesterday, "but teared up at a White House ceremony awarding the Medal of Honor to a Navy SEAL who died in Iraq. He plans to address the nation tomorrow, when aides expect him to adopt Petraeus's plan."

They write that "just as Bush gave the Medal of Honor to a war hero the day after announcing his troop-buildup strategy in January 2007, he gave another one yesterday.

"The East Room ceremony honoring Petty Officer 2nd Class Michael A. Monsoor was emotional. Bush wiped tears from his eyes and put his arm around Monsoor's family as the SEAL's death was recounted -- he threw himself onto a grenade to save two fellow SEALs. 'We see his legacy in the city of Ramadi,' Bush said, 'which has gone from one of the most dangerous places in Iraq to one of the most safest.'"

Here's the transcript and video of the event. Here's an AP photo of Bush's tears.

He actually did look quite stricken, particularly as he finished up his comments. "Mr. and Mrs. Monsoor: America owes you a debt that can never be repaid. This nation will always cherish the memory of your son. We will not let his life go in vain. And this nation will always honor the sacrifice he made. May God comfort you."

What was going on inside his head as he contemplated this amazing act of heroism in a war he launched by choice? There are so many possibilities.

Legacy Watch

Ben Feller writes for the Associated Press: "If he has doubts, he does not voice them. If he has regrets about his decision, he does not show them. More than five years into an Iraq war that has been longer, bloodier and costlier than the country expected, President Bush never wavers: The battle is just, the victory assured.

"Along the way, he has locked in another certitude. The pre-emptive war in Iraq will define how he is remembered.

"'Let history be the judge,' Bush responds as legacy questions creep into his final months in office.

"But the American people tend to live in the moment and evaluate their leaders in real time. Their disapproval is clear."

Opinion Watch

Maureen Dowd writes in her New York Times opinion column: "Maybe it was because I was sitting in the back of the Senate chamber with three war protesters -- grim-faced, chanting women dressed in black hooded cloaks, white makeup and blood-red hands -- that I felt as though I were watching a production of 'Macbeth' rather than a hearing on Iraq.

"'Fair is foul, and foul is fair,' the witches in the play said. 'Hover through the fog and filthy air.'

"Many words hovered Tuesday in the Senate -- including some pointed ones by the woman and two men vying to be commander in chief. But the words seemed trapped in a labyrinth leading nowhere."

Fred Kaplan writes for Slate: "Judging from Gen. David Petraeus' Senate testimony today, our military commitment to Iraq is open-ended and unconditional.

"The 'pause' in troop withdrawals, after the surge brigades go home this July, will not be 'brief' -- as some officials have hoped -- but indefinite."

MSNBC host Chris Matthews weighed in: "I didn't get anything out of it except that we're staying there indefinitely; there is no condition we can point to. Petraeus and Crocker never told us what to look for so we can know when we're getting close to the end of the tunnel. I was very dissatisfied by the hearings."

The Los Angeles Times editorial board writes: "Their argument was the same used to defend President Bush's 'surge' strategy in September: Whether it's going well or badly, the Iraq project is too important to risk failure by withdrawing U.S. forces 'prematurely.' But in nine hours of testimony, Petraeus and Crocker avoided offering any benchmarks that, if met, would permit most U.S. soldiers to leave at last.

"On the contrary, they cited the very problems that Bush created by his decision to invade Iraq -- an Al Qaeda presence and enhanced Iranian influence -- as requiring an indefinite U.S. military effort."

The USA Today editorial board writes that "on the question of how long it would take to succeed, the answer remains: We don't know and we won't know, in Petraeus' view, until some undefined time after a pause he seeks in the drawdown of U.S. troops.

"With the public and military both weary after five years of war, that absence of accountability is not good enough."

Robert Scheer, writing in his syndicated opinion column, recalls the controversial " General Betray Us" ads run by Moveon.org last year: "By undercutting the widespread support for getting out of Iraq, Petraeus did indeed betray the American public, siding with an enormously unpopular president who wants to stay the course in Iraq for personal and political reasons that run contrary to genuine national security interests. Once again, the president is passing the buck to the uniformed military to justify continuing a ludicrous imperial adventure, and the good general has dutifully performed."

Simon Jenkins writes in his Guardian opinion column: "As Petraeus told Congress yesterday, the surge has been a partial success in that crudest of measures: body count. But what next? [Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-] Maliki has shown that he still cannot command authority in Iraq's two biggest cities without calling on foreign firepower. Sunni warlords have been armed, ghettos created and the Mahdists possibly silenced for the time being. But these are sticking-plaster jobs. They have done nothing to bring Iraq's communities together in some sort of political concord. It has rather realigned them for future conflict. . . .

"There is no way of sustaining a client who no longer exists except by virtue of being sustained. The past fortnight has shown conclusively that the Maliki government is wholly dependent on America. The surge was a military tactic, not a strategy. It was supposed, in that old cliche, to 'supply politics with a breathing space'. But hundreds have continued to die, and Iraq's politics remain rooted in the embattled culture of the green zone. The truth is that there will be no peace within the Shia regions, no peace between Sunnis and Shias, and no resolution of the issues dividing Arabs and Kurds until the occupation is over. The occupation freezes politics. All else is tinkering. . . .

"Iraq remains the most wretched country in Asia, its children dying youngest, its minorities most terrorised, its infrastructure most wrecked. Politics is in suspense, and the middle classes in exile or living in perpetual fear of death. The claim that America and Britain, who created this mess, can best serve it by continuing to hang around, bombing and shooting, is laughable."

Here's retired Army Gen. William Odom on the PBS Newshour last night: "The surge has sustained military instability and achieved nothing in political consolidation.

"Allowing these sheiks in the Sunni areas and other strongmen to sign up with the United States to be paid, where we protect them from Maliki's government, diffuses power, both political and military. The possibilities for the Shiite camp to break up have been there all along. . . .

"So the things are much worse now. And I don't see that they'll get any better. This was foreseeable a year, a year-and-a-half ago. And to continue to put the cozy veneer of comfortable half-truth on this is to deceive the American public and to make them think it's not the charade it is."

Opinion Watch, The Rebuttal

The Washington Post editorial board writes: "Gen. Petraeus and Mr. Crocker have gotten more confident about calling the surge a success, and rightly so."

The Wall Street Journal editorial board writes: "President Bush's worst mistakes in Iraq were due to standing by flawed strategies and old thinking. Democrats have now adopted that posture."

Iran Watch

David Ignatius writes in his Washington Post opinion column: "The language that Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker used yesterday to describe the Iranian role in Iraq was extreme -- and telling. They spoke of Tehran's 'nefarious activities,' its 'malign influence' and how it posed 'the greatest long-term threat to the viability' of the Baghdad government.

"Iran was the heart of the matter during Senate testimony on the war. With al-Qaeda on the run in Iraq, the Iranian threat has become the rationale for the mission, and also the explanation for our shortcomings. The Iranians are the reason we're bogged down in Iraq, and also the reason we can't pull out our troops. The mullahs in Tehran loom over the Iraq battlefield like a giant Catch-22."

But Ignatius writes that this rhetoric is dangerous and ill-founded: "Fighting a war against Iran is a bad idea. But fighting a proxy war against it in Iraq, where many of our key allies are manipulated by Iranian networks of influence, may be even worse."

Rather, he concludes: "A U.S.-Iranian dialogue is a necessary condition for future stability in the Middle East."

Meanwhile, Bush Bombs With Afghans

Laurent Lozano writes for AFP how Bush's attempts at humor did nothing to assuage some grim visitors yesterday: "Eight Afghan governors met with US President George W. Bush to tell him a few unpleasant truths about the plight of their country as coalition forces fight terrorists and the Taliban.

"While grateful for the overthrow of the Taliban regime and the changes taking place since 2001, the governors complained about the slow pace of progress and how it was serving militants' interests, and about the 'excesses' of coalition forces.

"The eight visitors poured out their feelings in a very civil, one-hour dialogue with Bush, who is a former governor of Texas, and before a group of reporters, including AFP, at the White House Tuesday.

"Asadullah Hamdam, Governor of Oruzgan province, was first to raise the thorny issue of indiscriminate arrests by coalition troops.

"Bush, attempting to soften the moment by appealing to their shared experience as governors, told the group that he understood.

"'They come and complain to you,' he said, remembering his years as Texas governor (1995-2000).

"But seeing his Afghan guests' serious demeanor, Bush added haltingly: 'When somebody gets arrested that shouldn't have been arrested you file a complaint obviously. . . . '

"'If I just may,' Khost Governor Arsala Jamal politely cut in. 'I think the issue is greater than that: we have 640 detainees in Bagram and like the governor said, all the governors are facing this problem.' . . .

"Jamal told Bush about the nightmare people arrested without charge face, and became downcast when Bush apparently failed to understand his suggestion that some operations were best carried out by Afghan rather than coalition forces.

"'I got you,' Bush repeated several times."

Torture Watch

Mark your calendar: "Today, House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers, Jr. (D-MI) announced plans to hold a May 6 hearing to examine a recently released torture memo and the issue of executive power as it relates to interrogation and war-making authority. Conyers also sent a letter today to University of California - Berkeley Professor John Yoo asking him to testify at the hearing. Yoo is the former attorney in the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel who authored the recently released memo seeking to clarify torture procedures and detailing the Administration's extremely broad view of presidential powers during wartime."

Bush Justice

Eric Lichtblau writes in the New York Times: "In a major shift of policy, the Justice Department, once known for taking down giant corporations, including the accounting firm Arthur Andersen, has put off prosecuting more than 50 companies suspected of wrongdoing over the last three years.

"Instead, many companies, from boutique outfits to immense corporations like American Express, have avoided the cost and stigma of defending themselves against criminal charges with a so-called deferred prosecution agreement, which allows the government to collect fines and appoint an outside monitor to impose internal reforms without going through a trial. In many cases, the name of the monitor and the details of the agreement are kept secret.

"Deferred prosecutions have become a favorite tool of the Bush administration. But some legal experts now wonder if the policy shift has led companies, in particular financial institutions now under investigation for their roles in the subprime mortgage debacle, to test the limits of corporate anti-fraud laws. . . .

"Deferred prosecution agreements, or D.P.A.'s, have become controversial because of a medical supply company's agreement to pay up to $52 million to the consulting firm of John Ashcroft, the former attorney general, as an outside monitor to avoid criminal prosecution. That agreement has prompted Congressional inquiries and calls for stricter guidelines.

Olympics Watch

Ken Herman writes for Cox News Service: "The White House, offering somewhat mixed signals on Tuesday, left open the possibility that President Bush could skip the opening ceremony when he goes to China in August for the Summer Olympics.

"Spokeswoman Dana Perino said Bush still plans to attend the games but noted that no schedule has been set on exactly what events would be on his itinerary. . . .

"Bush is being pressured to skip the opening ceremony as a way to protest China's crackdown on Tibetan protesters and what is viewed by some as China's refusal to use its influence to help quell violence in Sudan."

Housing Watch

Jessica Holzer writes in The Hill: "The White House on Tuesday weighed in strongly against a bipartisan plan to remedy the ailing housing market, suggesting it could veto the legislation the Senate is on the verge of approving. . . .

"White House spokeswoman Dana Perino blasted the Senate legislation before a gaggle of reporters, saying it would 'do more harm than good by bailing out lenders and speculators.'

"But the move surprised Senate Republicans, who appeared to be in the dark about the Bush administration's strong misgivings even after Vice President Dick Cheney attended their weekly Tuesday luncheon.

"'You're telling me something I was unaware of. It was unclear that the White House had a stated position yet on this bill,' Sen. Mitch McConnell (Ky.), the Republican leader, told reporters in response to a question about Perino's statement."

John D. McKinnon and Damian Paletta write in the Wall Street Journal: "The Bush administration plans to expand a government program that helps struggling borrowers keep their homes, as it moves to respond to the housing crisis amid more sweeping, costly Democratic proposals."

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Cartoon Watch

David Horsey, Mike Keefe and Bill Mitchell on the war; Lee Judge on Bush's idea of a summit.

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