Two days of marathon testimony from America's senior commander in Iraq and its top diplomat there gave a new impetus to lawmakers in Congress who aim to force a change of course in Iraq.
If not, the United States could be facing at least a 10-year presence in Iraq, said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi after a closed meeting Tuesday between congressional leaders and President Bush. As early as next week, Senate Democrats say, they will make another run at passing bipartisan legislation to force a faster exit of US forces than the one Mr. Bush is expected to outline in a televised address Thursday at 9 p.m. EDT.
In testimony this week on progress on the ground in Iraq, Army Gen. David Petraeus and US Ambassador Ryan Crocker said they would advise Bush to begin a drawdown of US forces from Iraq by mid-December and to reduce the number of combat troops to pre-"surge" levels – about 130,000 – by mid-July 2008. The president is likely to embrace that general framework in his speech Thursday, with the caveat that conditions in Iraq must be improving. It will take more time, perhaps until March, to determine if and when troop levels can be drawn down further, Bush is expected to say.
"We're watching political theater at its most complex here," says Winslow Wheeler, director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Center for Defense Information, a nonpartisan think tank on security policy. "The president will say he's just doing what the generals told him. The Democrats are playing their role by being critical. Then, the president will say that whatever bad happens is their fault, because they didn't give their complete support. But the whole performance is deep cover for getting out."
Much more than US troop levels was on the minds of senators – including some Republicans who have backed the president's war strategy – as they questioned General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker Tuesday during nearly 10 hours of consecutive hearings. Some questioned whether Iraqis want to live in a unified Iraq – and, if not, what kind of Iraqi government and society the US could reasonably expect to see.
"The greatest risk for United States policy is not that we are incapable of making progress but that this progress may be largely beside the point, given the divisions that now afflict Iraqi society," said Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Already, congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle are scrambling to see whether the Petraeus-Crocker testimony has shifted any members' views on the war and the US war strategy. Next week, the Senate is on track to take up the fiscal 2008 defense authorization bill, which could become the vehicle for new initiatives pertaining to the war.
"There has to be a lot of sifting that has to go on right now separating fact from fiction," says Tom Andrews, national director of Win without War, a coalition of antiwar groups. "A part of this is going to be up to the Congress – how they frame this information and what they do with it."
Sens. Carl Levin (D) of Michigan and Jack Reed (D) of Rhode Island say they are recasting a measure that originally called for beginning the withdrawal of US forces 120 days after the bill passes, to end by April 30, 2008. In July, the amendment fell eight votes short of overcoming a Republican filibuster.
"We owe it to the American people to come up with a pathway home," says Sen. Gordon Smith (R) of Oregon, who voted for the Levin-Reed amendment and says he is talking to GOP colleagues to build support for a new version of the measure. [Editor's note: The original version listed the wrong state for Senator Smith.]
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell says any war-related votes will be subject to the 60-vote threshold that has become standard for important legislation to make it onto the Senate floor. Petraeus "enjoys great respect on both sides of the aisle, and I'm optimistic that when all is said and done his suggestions will be largely the position in the Senate," he said after the meeting at the White House between Bush and lawmakers.
At the heart of the case that Petraeus and Crocker presented this week is the view that it is still possible, despite enormous challenges, for the US to meet its goals in Iraq and for Iraqis to achieve political reconciliation.
"In recent months, in the face of tough enemies and the brutal summer heat of Iraq, coalition and Iraqi security forces have achieved progress in the security arena," said Petraeus, who told House and Senate panels that his remarks were his own and had not been cleared by the Pentagon or the White House.
The overall number of security incidents has declined in eight of the past 12 weeks, ethno-sectarian violence has been reduced, and the number of overall civilian deaths has declined, although they are still at "troubling levels," he said.
Pressed as to why the assessment by the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, was not so optimistic, Petraeus said the GAO analysis did not include statistics covering the past five weeks in Iraq, which were especially positive.
"There's much disagreement relative to the facts on the ground in Iraq, on the issue of whether or not the surge has produced significant progress in terms of security," said Senator Levin, who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, citing recent public opinion polls that indicate Iraqis feel less secure than before the surge. But there is little dispute that the purpose of the surge – "to give Iraqi politicians breathing space to work out a political settlement" – has not been achieved, Levin added. The Iraqi government hasn't set a date for provincial elections, approved a new law to ensure that all Iraqi groups share in oil revenues, or passed measures to promote political reconciliation.
In response, Crocker and Petraeus insisted that there had been progress toward reconciliation. Despite the absence of an oil law, Iraq is sharing oil revenue with provinces that do not produce oil. While there is no general amnesty law, there is conditional amnesty, allowing supporters of the former regime to attend the police academy, they said.
That assessment of whether political reconciliation is possible in Iraq is emerging as a key issue in the next war votes.
"I have a lot of respect for General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker, but I continue to believe we should not delay to change the mission of our troops to lay the groundwork for a more significant drawdown," said Sen. Susan Collins (R) of Maine, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee who has been targeted by national antiwar groups for her support of the war.
Other Republican lawmakers say they are troubled by the strain put on US forces by extended deployments. The Senate is within two votes of passing a measure to require minimum rest periods at home for US military units before redeployment to Iraq, says majority leader Harry Reid.
That idea, contained in a bill that passed the House on Aug. 2, would curb the president's ability to sustain current force levels in Iraq. Bush has threatened to veto it. In the Senate, Sen. Jim Webb (D) of Virginia proposed a similar measure, but it failed to overcome a filibuster.
"I'm more inclined to vote for it than before, because I've talked to too many guys going back [to Iraq] with involuntary extensions," says Sen. George Voinovich (R) of Ohio. "We've got many guys very angry. We've got to recognize it. That's the reality right now."