As they shuttled between Capitol Hill committee rooms for two days of hearings this week, America’s leaders in Iraq carried a veritable Rosetta stone of briefing charts on “ethno-sectarian violence,” Iraqi combat “force generation,” and weekly “security incidents,” the better to decipher the strange hieroglyphics of the Iraq war for an audience of confounded lawmakers.
Supporters of the war clearly heard Army Gen. David Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker interpret the trends as great progress. The recent battle in Basra highlighted both the improvements in the Iraqi security forces’ ability to deploy en masse, for instance, and the willingness of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki to crack down on extremist militias of his own Shiite sect. Levels of sectarian violence and civilian deaths are down “substantially.” Al Qaeda in Iraq is reeling from “serious blows.”
Moreover, the Iraqi parliament has finally passed key legislation and achieved benchmarks dealing with “vital issues of reconciliation and nation building.” The tone of the once-fratricidal Iraqi political debate has become more “flexible” and “practical.” Iraqi security forces continue to grow in size and capability, and have assumed control of half of Iraq’s 18 provinces. Glass half full.
“With respect to my colleagues who have consistently opposed our presence in Iraq, as I hear the questions and statements today, it seems to me there’s a kind of ‘Hear no progress in Iraq,’ ‘See no progress in Iraq,’ and most of all, ‘Speak no progress in Iraq,’ ” Sen. Joe Lieberman, ID-Conn., a staunch supporter of the war, said in a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee. “But the fact is, there has been progress in Iraq.… I just wish we could come to a point of agreement on the facts you are presenting to us—the charts you’ve shown, the military progress, the extraordinary drop in ethno-sectarian violence, the very impressive political progress in Iraq since last September. Let’s be honest about this,” he continued, “the Iraqi political leadership has achieved more political reconciliation since September than the American political leadership.”
Hold on a minute. Opponents of the war clearly heard Petraeus and Crocker testify that everything achieved in Iraq after five years of war and 15 months of a troop surge is “fragile” and “reversible,” as evidenced by the recent spike in violence when anti-American cleric Moktada al-Sadr temporarily lifted his cease-fire. The battle of Basra also “underscored the considerable work still to be done” in standing up the Iraqi security forces, Petraeus conceded, noting that the Iraqis rushed recklessly into the battle, were fought to a deadlock by local militias, and suffered more than 1,000 desertions.
Meanwhile, terrorists, militia extremists, and criminal gangs still pose “significant threats” in Iraq, according to the general and the ambassador. Al Qaeda’s senior leaders continue to fund and direct their deadly subsidiary in Iraq. Iran has stepped up its training, arming, and direction of Iraqi Shiite “special groups” that are raining increasingly accurate rockets and mortars down on the Green Zone to deadly effect. Government corruption still poses an “enormous” challenge to the rule of law. The Iraqi security forces have assumed control of only half of 18 Iraqi provinces. Glass half empty.
“In listening to your testimony this morning, it seems clear that the administration describes one Iraq, while we see another,” said Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., a staunch opponent of the war. President Bush sees an Iraq in which Iraqis want to make political accommodation, Kennedy said, while most Americans see an Iraqi government that “is dysfunctional and unwilling to make the kind of compromises that are necessary to end the violence.… The president sees an Iraq in which the Iraqi police and army are making steady progress. But most Americans see an Iraq in which we’ve spent $22 billion to train the Iraqi military for five long years, only to find that when the troops are needed most—as they were last week in Basra—more than 1,000 defect in the middle of the battle.”
If there ever was a moment when hopeful trends on military briefing charts or artful testimony could change fundamental opinions about the Iraq war, this week’s hearings suggest that such a time has long since passed. Unlike last September’s congressional testimony by the duo, which confirmed the early gains of the surge and kept restive Republicans from abandoning Bush on the war, the hearings this week may have accomplished little.
Petraeus announced his intention to continue the withdrawal of the five surge brigades through July and then take a pause of 45 days or more to evaluate the situation on the ground. In response, Republicans and Democrats simply dug into their well-worn rhetorical positions for or against the war, understanding that Bush intends to let the next commander-in-chief decide what to do about the 140,000 U.S. troops engaged in an open-ended conflict. The American people, too, have gone to their respective corners on the subject, with a recent poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press showing that only 27 percent of Democrats support keeping troops in Iraq, compared with 81 percent of Republicans.
Despite the trenchant comment from Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., a Vietnam War veteran, that “combat was the most apolitical environment I’ve ever been in,” the next weighty decision on what to do about Iraq now rests with American voters. Indeed, it was the politics of the presidential election season that infused the hearings with most of their drama. All three major candidates took time off from the campaign trail to attend and defend their positions on Iraq.
“The promise of withdrawal of our forces [from Iraq] regardless of the consequences would constitute a failure of political and moral leadership,” Sen. John McCain, R.-Ariz., began, taking direct aim at the Democrats’ position.
“I fundamentally disagree,” Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., retorted when her time came to speak. “Rather, I think it could be fair to say that it might well be irresponsible to continue the policy that has not produced the results that have been promised time and time again at such tremendous cost.”
In the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., defended his timeline for a withdrawal of U.S. combat forces from Iraq within 16 months, and even the prospect of a “messy, sloppy status quo” that it might leave behind, as preferable to an open-ended war that could last decades. “I’m trying to get to an end point,” Obama said. “That’s what all of us are trying to get to.”
Although largely devoid of surprise, the Iraq hearings crystallized the grave risks that the war poses to all three presidential candidates, both during the election and should one of them gain the Oval Office. McCain has staked his national security credibility on his steadfastness on Iraq, never questioning the wisdom of invading nor wavering in his determination to see the war through to victory. The hearings were yet another reminder, then, that a vote for McCain is essentially a double-down bet on an unpopular war, one that is subject to setbacks and reversals at any time. Notably, Crocker warned of possible increased tensions and violence at the time of Iraqi provincial elections now scheduled for October, just before American voters will render their own verdict on the war.
As Lieberman noted, the chief political risk of the Democrats’ opposition to the war is that they could become locked into a negative narrative that seems impervious to positive news out of Iraq, and thus seem out of touch. The Clinton and Obama plans to withdraw combat forces from Iraq in 16 months may also create expectations among the American public that would be extremely difficult to meet.
Both Clinton and Obama, to be sure, call for a residual U.S. force to remain in Iraq indefinitely to continue to train and support Iraqi security forces, to target and deny sanctuary to terrorists, and to protect the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, the largest in the world. Some experts estimate that the rapid reaction combat force, forward operating bases, and logistical footprint needed to adequately accomplish those tasks could require as many as 50,000 U.S. troops.
Campaign promises may also create domestic pressures on a Democratic commander-in-chief to continue withdrawing U.S. troops even if the situation on the ground deteriorates. Both Clinton and Obama have stated that they would adjust their withdrawal plans if they ran into unanticipated problems, which, as this week’s testimony made clear, is a pretty good characterization of the entire Iraq enterprise to date.
Crocker and Petraeus talked repeatedly about the complex “battlefield geometry” and the “political-military calculus” involved in assessing whether the United States is moving forward or backward in its war-fighting and nation-building project in Iraq. By the time they had packed up their charts and left Capitol Hill, it was clear that some lawmakers still couldn’t decipher the handwriting on the wall or determine whether the numbers add up. “There is, it seems to me,” said Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., “some disconnect in the abstraction that we’re dealing with today.”
This article appears in the April 12, 2008, edition of National Journal Magazine.