With the US commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, offering to make small reductions in US troop levels starting this year, and with no sign of a GOP exodus from US policy on Iraq, President Bush probably has the political space he needs to avoid a drawn-out battle with Congress over Iraq.
That means the big decisions about post-"surge" policy are very likely to be left to the next president. And that made Tuesday's Senate hearings with General Petraeus and Ryan Crocker, US ambassador to Iraq, all the more telling, almost like a presidential debate – not least because five candidates for US president were among the senators offering their takes on Iraq.
Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker made the case for more time for the US escalation in Iraq before the Senate as they had before House committees on Monday, knowing that pressure from Congress for setting a timetable for a US withdrawal has subsided. The result was that the congressional discussion seemed to be more about post-Bush visions than short-term planning.
"It's important because it's really about the next presidency," says Ken Pollack, an Iraq expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington. Saying he believes Mr. Bush will drop troop numbers in Iraq to pre-surge levels of about 130,000 troops by some point next spring, Mr. Pollack says this essentially puts off major post-escalation decisions to the next administration.
"The real question is what the next president decides to do," he says.
In Tuesday's hearings, Petraeus and Crocker were to face five presidential candidates: Republican John McCain and Democrats Joseph Biden, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Christopher Dodd, and Barack Obama.
Senator McCain has aligned himself most closely with the current strategy, claiming recently he is the only candidate who has consistently supported a policy of victory in Iraq through higher troop levels. But that leaves McCain closely associated with the unpopular Bush, who is expected later this week to outline a vision that largely endorses Petraeus's recommendations.
In his Senate testimony, Petraeus repeated his view, offered to the House Monday, that violence is down in Iraq as a result of the surge and is beginning to allow for political progress, especially at the provincial level.
Armed with stacks of charts and maps on the impact of the surge, Petraeus said Monday he would recommend withdrawing about 6,000 troops this year: a Marine unit of 2,000 this month and one Army brigade – about 4,000 troops – in December. That would be followed by a further partial drawdown that would return US troop numbers in Iraq to 130,000 by July 2008.
Petraeus also recommended that Bush wait until March of next year to make decisions about force levels for later in 2008.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Biden said he was more interested in knowing when and if Petraeus and Crocker thought the surge strategy would begin to have an impact on Iraqi progress toward national reconciliation. Biden said Tuesday he had concluded after a recent trip to Iraq that national political progress was no closer as a result of the surge.
For his part, Petraeus seemed to seek to directly address the position of some candidates, including Senator Clinton's of New York. She is in favor of US forces being drawn down more quickly, with those remaining focusing on the training of Iraqi security forces and the effort against Al Qaeda-affiliated forces in Iraq.
Petraeus said in his House testimony Monday that a precipitous withdrawal of forces and redeployment from the current strategy of providing security to Iraqis risked reversing recent progress – and wasting what he and Crocker view as the beginnings of political progress.
No doubt in part because they returned to a Washington already engrossed in the 2008 election, the Petraeus-Crocker team encountered a Congress wearing its deep divisions over Iraq on its sleeve.
At the opening of Monday's testimony, the Democratic chairmen of the House Armed Services and Foreign Affairs Committees focused on the failure of the Iraqi government to take advantage of the surge to move toward national reconciliation. Rep. Ike Skelton (D) of Missouri, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said US troops had paved the way for Iraq to make a political "touchdown," but he concluded, "the Iraqis haven't even picked up the ball."
Ranking Republican members focused on Iraq's place in the war on terror, as well as on what they called Democratic attacks on Petraeus's credibility and suggestions that his testimony was not independent from the White House.
Representative Skelton countered the Republican broadsides by saying Petraeus was "almost certainly the right man for the job in Iraq, but he's the right person three years too late and 250,00 troops short."
With the Democrats well shy of the votes needed to override a presidential veto on a timetable for a troop withdrawal, yet still seeking to influence policy, some experts see this week's debate as doing little to settle the national debate over Iraq.
"What [Petraeus and 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 is 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.
In his House testimony, Crocker appeared to make the case that the surge strategy had pulled Iraq back from the precipice of collapse and full-blown civil war. He said Iraq in 2006 "came close to unraveling politically, economically, and in security terms." But 2007 "has brought improvement" that Crocker said was evident in political as well as in security terms. He also cited economic gains.
Such a sanguine assessment surprised some observers, who thought the two officials might indicate a broader opening to change in US strategy as a way to win support among critics of the current course.