Petraeus, Crocker try to buy time for US efforts in Iraq
Their mostly upbeat testimony probably gives Bush some political space, but the reports aren't likely to result in broad political consensus.
The report from Gen. David Petraeus, the US commander in Iraq, was not all good, but for him, progress in reducing violence in the months of the "surge" warrants keeping higher numbers of US troops there and following the current strategy until summer 2008.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Ryan Crocker, the US ambassador to Iraq, had the tougher task of convincing a dubious Congress and nation that the Iraqi government is capable of achieving the political progress the surge was designed to facilitate. He gave a bureaucratic and colorless assessment of Iraqi political capabilities – and may have advanced the case of those who want to see a new course.
The two officials, bookends of the US military-political strategy in Iraq, came to Congress Monday for the first of two days of testimony to buy more time for the US engagement in Iraq. With no sign of the Republican exodus from President Bush's Iraq policy that Democrats anticipated earlier this summer, the likelihood now seems good they'll be able to make the purchase.
General Petraeus, armed with stacks of charts and maps on the impact of the surge, said in Monday afternoon testimony that he would recommend withdrawing one Army brigade – about 4,000 troops – in December, to be followed by a further partial drawdown that would return US troop numbers in Iraq to 130,000 by July 2008. That's about where US force numbers stood when Mr. Bush announced the troop-buildup strategy in January. Petraeus also recommended that Bush wait until March of next year to make decisions about force levels for later in 2008.
The essentially upbeat testimony and prospects for some drawdown of troops probably gives Bush the political space he needs to avoid a battle with Congress over Iraq, while leaving to the next president decisions on long-term Iraq policy. But that doesn't mean this week's reports are likely to result in broad political consensus.
"What [Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker] made the case for is more squabbling," says Wayne White, until recently an Iraq expert at the State Department and now an adjunct scholar with the Middle East Institute in Washington.
"There was enough there if you're not a skeptic to bolster the view that progress in being made," he says. "But if you are, you just might have come away with the feeling that we're being snookered."
Petraeus's data obscure a number of "ground truths," Mr. White says – about continuing violence and ethno-sectarian cleansing in Baghdad's mixed neighborhoods, and about the unaddressed threat of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia. As for national reconciliation, he says, some US action under the surge – working more closely with Sunni tribes, for example – is actually "a step backward" from the goal of national political unity, though it may serve other US interests.
The Petraeus-Crocker team, appearing Monday afternoon before a joint session of the House Armed Services and Foreign Affairs Committees, arrived from Baghdad to encounter a Congress wearing its deep divisions over Iraq on its sleeve. The two go before the Senate Tuesday.
At the same time, fresh public-opinion surveys underscored that the lead-up to the much-awaited reports on Iraq – which included a surprise trip by Bush to Iraq last week – did not sway the US public from its desire for a timetable to end the US war in Iraq.
Several new polls out in the hours preceding the congressional testimony showed that while Americans trust military leaders more than the White House or Congress to guide Iraq policy, a majority continues to want a plan for drawing down the US troop presence in Iraq. Going into today's progress report, a majority believes the surge of 30,000 additional US troops has failed in its goals.
A Gallup Poll for USA Today found that 60 percent of Americans – a record for the poll – want the government to set a timetable for withdrawing forces and to stick to it regardless of conditions on the ground in Iraq.