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Congress grills Petraeus on Iraq status; demands ‘no-nonsense’ answers

 

congress1.jpgInch the price up, a dollar here, a dollar there. Customers rarely notice. On the day of the big sale, “slash” prices and people will come, buy, plunk down dollars and pay what you would have gotten in the first place — and they’ll be happy that they think they got a deal.

That’s what unfolded this afternoon on the Senate floor before the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee, as General David Petraeus made a case for keeping the war in Iraq alive even as he concedes the next nine months of war will cost America “60 soldiers a day” and “nine billion dollars a month.”

Petraus tried to sell the prospect of drawdown in US troop levels that were in fact a pulling of troops who are part of the President’s highly touted 2007 “surge,” and would not likely affect the base number of troops — 130,000 — for another 9-12 months.

The hearings, scheduled to play out against the backdrop of September 11 memorial services and overshadowed by taunting new messages from Osama Bin Laden, seemed designed to maximize the memory of terror, a strategic move that uses fear to possibly strengthen the weakening position of President Bush and play to the fears of a public voicing increasing discontent with the state of the Iraq War. Although the tough questions flew from both sides of the political aisle, and Democrats were distinctly supportive of troops but not policy, the Republican Senators seemed particularly intense, an indicator that many are shying away from Bush policies and paying more attention to an ever more discontent public on this issue.

Petraeus’ assessment that violence in Iraq has fallen since the U.S. buildup was questioned last week in a report by the Government Accountability Office, which found the average number of daily attacks against civilians had remained about the same during the past six months.

Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker have been presenting testimony and fielding questions for two days, presenting their views of the war and the state of Iraq, which Crocker says continues to have a “dysfunctional” government but the good news is that the Iraqi government “knows it is dysfunctional.” That’s reassuring.

“A secure, stable, democratic Iraq at peace with its neighbors is, in my view, attainable,” There will be no single moment at which we can claim victory. Any turning point will likely be recognized only in retrospect.”

— Ambassador Ryan Crocker

Petraeus admitted more than once that he would be “hard pressed to recommend continuation of the war” past March, 2008, if “significant” progress was not made in areas of governance and the ability of the Iraqi forces to “shoulder the weight of the load” in terms of security and the insurgency.

iraq-soldier.jpgPetraeus said the “surge” on troop strength — 30,000 soldiers — has made a marginal difference and those troops could possibly be phased down and brought home by July, 2008, Petraeus suggested, leaving troop levels “reduced” to the pre-surge level of about 130,000.

Yes, it addressed the issues of pulling out troops, but this drawdown sounds more like a bait-and-switch sales pitch that would leave President Bush and company still firmly entrenched in Iraq with no end in sight, 130,000 troops still battling it out in the Middle East, and the American taxpayers picking up the tab and burying their dead just as the Iraqis will continue to do.

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Tom Lantos, who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee, dismissed Petraeus’ proposed withdrawal as “token” and said U.S. troops must get out now.

What would happen in July 2008 if progress doesn’t meet expectations? In a burst of candor, without a smile, and with a somber look in his eyes, Petraeus said he would be hard pressed to push for a ‘stay the course’ option without clear cut evidence of progress. Probably not what the President wants to hear.

Sen. Robert Menedez (D-New Jersey) asked:

“General, of what you know today, if the commander in chief said to you, ‘Gen. Petraeus, how many more years do American soldiers have to continue in Iraq,’ what would your answer to him be?”

Petraeus replied:

“I cannot predict that.”

To give him credit, Petraeus seemed unflappable under fire and blunt in his assessment — the good, bad and ugly — of the Iraq war as he fielded an endless flow of tough question after tough question. His biggest concerns about future progress in Iraq related less to troops and the Iraq people and more on issues of leadership of this fledgling Democracy. Diplomacy, and issues rewarding the establishment and sustenance of an effective Iraqi government as the biggest priority.

Sen. Russ Feingold ( -Wisconsin) pressured the general to estimate when a significant drop in American deaths in Iraq could be expected. Petraeus answered:

“Senator, we are on the offensive, and when you go on the offensive, you have tough fighting.”

He asked Petraeus and Crocker whether Pakistan or Iraq is more important to the fight against al Qaeda but neither responded, instead sitting in uncomfortable silence.

For its part, Senators of both parties held tightly to their eight minute limit for statements and questions, with one senator after another punching out requests for very specific information and many trying to not repeat questions already asked and answered.

Barrack Obama waxed eloquent and succinct as he said the war “continues to be a disastrous policy mistake.”

“We’ve heard from the Administration and from many of our Senate colleagues this summer that we need to give the President’s surge strategy more time before we can make a decision to redeploy our troops. However, two reports issued over the past week paint a bleak picture of the prospects of the current strategy. These reports reinforce the conclusion that there is no military solution in Iraq, that we need to get our troops out of the middle of Iraq’s civil war, and that this war must be brought to a responsible conclusion.”

— Barrack Obama (D-Illinois)

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Republican senators tossed out some of the toughest questions, easily rivaling those asked by Democratic presidential hopefuls on the panel. Here’s what some of them had to say:

“It is not enough for the administration to counsel patience until the next milestone or report. Even as the administration defines its current strategy, it is vital that it plan for a range of post-September contingencies,” “The surge must not be an excuse for failing to prepare for the next phase of our involvement in Iraq, whether that is partial withdrawal, a gradual redeployment or some other option. We saw in 2003, after the initial invasion of Iraq, the disastrous results of failing to plan adequately for contingencies.”

— Sen. Dick Lugar (R-Indiana)

Lugar was concerned about the strain imposed on the American military by extended deployments, which have been increased from 12 to 15 months while stateside time has not changed, and in some cases has been reduced.

“Are we going to continue to invest blood and treasure at the same rate we’re doing now? For what?”

— Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Nebraska

“Americans want to see light at the end of the tunnel. America’s commitment, while long-term, is not open-ended.”

— Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minnesota

Republican support for the Iraq war remains on shaky ground in Congress, epitomized by Lugar’s opening statement Tuesday and Hagel’s heated questioning of the general’s recommendations. But that support wasn’t lost.

Joe Lieberman (D-Connecticut) introduced the other “I” word to the Q&A: Iran. Lieberman pressed for information on insurgency supports that might be funneled through Iran and Syria, probing, it seemed, for a reason to justify and expansion of the Iraq war into one or both of those countries. Petraeus didn’t bite, and said he was concerned only with what was happening in Iraq. The question felt like a “testing of the waters” on expansion of Middle Eastern conflicts and the response was one of the few that actually felt evasive. Pay attention, people.

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As I listened to two days of hearings, I was particularly impressed with the statement presented by BarackObama (D-Illinios), and decided to add his statement in full as a conclusion to this article, since it is the most comprehensive summation of the day and sums up the issues and concerns voiced by all other congressional Representatives and Senators.

Below is Senator Obama’s statement as prepared for delivery at the Senate Hearing today:

“Mr. Chairman, thank you for holding this hearing and for giving us an opportunity to gather more information about the situation in Iraq. I also appreciate the willingness of General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker to provide an update on the situation from their perspectives. I look forward to their assessment of the situation on the ground in Iraq, a situation that can only be described as grave.

“We’ve heard from the Administration and from many of our Senate colleagues this summer that we need to give the President’s surge strategy more time before we can make a decision to redeploy our troops. However, two reports issued over the past week paint a bleak picture of the prospects of the current strategy. These reports reinforce the conclusion that there is no military solution in Iraq, that we need to get our troops out of the middle of Iraq’s civil war, and that this war must be brought to a responsible conclusion.

“The U.S. Government Accountability Office concluded that the Iraqi government has failed to meet 11 of its 18 benchmarks. Another 4 benchmarks have been only partially met. In particular, GAO cited the failure of the Iraqi government to enact legislation on de-Baathification, oil revenue sharing, provincial elections, amnesty, and militia disarmament. Moreover, according to GAO, the Iraqi government has not eliminated militia control of local security, it has not eliminated political intervention in military operations, it has not ensured even-handed enforcement of the law, and it has not increased the number of army units capable of independent operations. The effect of this failure to act has been a high level of sectarian violence that can only be seen as having abated when it is measured against the explosion of violence late last year and early this year.

“And last week, an independent commission chaired by General James Jones offered a similarly bleak assessment. The Jones Commission found that the Iraqi Security Forces will not be able to carry out their essential security responsibilities without assistance for at least 12 to 18 months. The Commission also found that the Iraqi Police Service is incapable of providing adequate security to protect Iraqis from insurgents and sectarian violence and that the National Police is so infiltrated by sectarian militias that it should be disbanded and reorganized.

“These independent assessments – and the stunningly bleak NIE released at the end of last month – make clear that there has been zero national political progress. The consensus from the NIE, GAO, and General Jones is that the Iraqi Security Forces have made little progress.

“Rather than identify the very limited tactical gains that have been made at great cost and using them to justify the maintenance of a failing strategy, I believe it is time to change course. Over 3,700 American servicemen and women have died in this war and over 27,000 have been seriously wounded. Each month, this misguided war costs us a staggering $10 billion, and when all is said and done, this will have cost us $1 trillion.

“Changing the definition of success to stay the course with the wrong policy is the wrong course for our troops and our national security. The time to end the surge and to start bringing our troops home is now – not six months from now. The Iraqi government is not achieving the political progress that was the stated purpose of the surge, and in key areas has gone backwards.

“Our military cannot sustain its current deployments without crippling our ability to respond to contingencies around the world. It’s time for a change of direction that brings our troops home, applies real pressure on the Iraqis to act, surges our diplomacy, and addresses Iraq’s urgent humanitarian crisis. I can only support a policy that begins an immediate removal of our troops from Iraq’s civil war, and initiates a sustained drawdown of our military presence.

“It is long past time to turn the page in Iraq, where each day we see the consequences of fighting a war that should never have been authorized and should never have been waged. We in Congress must take action to change the President’s failed policy.”

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