When Lt. Gen. David Petraeus faced a Senate Armed Services committee stacked with anti-war legislators on the first day of confirmation hearings, the three-star general was blunt: "The situation in Iraq is dire. The way ahead will be very hard. But hard is not hopeless."
"Hard is not hopeless" was a chord President Bush struck in his State of the Union address later that evening. "The rite of custom brings us together at a defining hour-when decisions are hard and courage is needed," the president told lawmakers. "This is not the fight we entered in Iraq, but it is the fight we're in. Every one of us wishes this war were over and won. Yet it would not be like us to leave our promises unkept, our friends abandoned, and our own security at risk."
But as a week of war hearings unfolded in the House and Senate, the chord was one many lawmakers greeted with a deaf ear.
Sen. Hillary Clinton appeared on ABC's Good Morning America before heading to Petraeus' hearings on Jan. 23 to criticize the president's plan to send more troops to Iraq. When host Diane Sawyer pointed out that Clinton voted to authorize the war in 2002, the senator responded: "Well, I think giving the president the authority has turned out to be a terrible decision for everybody, including the president."
Later that morning in the Caucus Room of the Russell Senate Building, Clinton and other senators used confirmation hearings for Petraeus, up for the top military command post in Iraq, as an opportunity to sound off against the Bush administration's plan to send an additional 21,500 troops to Iraq.
Across the street in the Dirksen Senate Office Building, members of the Foreign Relations Committee put their objections in writing: The committee approved a non-binding resolution that called the president's plan "not in the national interest" and urged the full Senate to vote on the resolution within a week.
Committee chairman Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.) crafted the resolution with Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel, the only Republican on the committee to support it. But at least eight other Republicans in the Senate said they backed legislative action to oppose the president's plan as well. Hagel doled out searing criticism of the troop surge, calling Bush's war policy "a ping-pong game with American lives. . . . We better be damn sure we know what we're doing, all of us, before we put 22,000 more Americans into that grinder."
Back in the armed services hearings, Petraeus refused to guarantee success but assured senators he knew what he was doing. Sitting behind a red-draped table in a highly decorated dress uniform, the general also talked about a less-discussed feature of the troop surge: what the troops actually will do.
Petraeus, who co-authored a recent Pentagon manual for battling the insurgency, outlined a strategy for bolstering Baghdad against sectarian violence and giving Iraqi officials "more breathing room." The general said troops will spend more time learning about the sectarian tensions unique to each neighborhood before attempting to secure them. The strategy will require more time and patience, he said, but is the way to move beyond chaos.
Controlling Iraqi chaos is a job with which Petraeus is familiar. The general has served two tours of duty in Iraq, first as commander of the 101st Airborne Division, and then as overseer of the training of Iraqi forces. During his first tour, Petraeus' division largely secured the violent city of Mosul. While on the ground the general also focused on economic development and infrastructure and led his troops in reconstruction and public-works projects. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who supports the president's surge plan, has called Petraeus "General Grant for the Iraq War."
Still, Petraeus, widely respected and considered a shoo-in for confirmation, agreed with senators that the situation in Iraq is intricate and unpredictable: "We face a determined, adaptable, barbaric enemy. . . . In fact, any such endeavor is a test of wills, and there are no guarantees." Petraeus also acknowledged the burden that the troop surge puts on military members and their families, including his own. But, the general said, withdrawing troops quickly would be irresponsible of the United States and disastrous for Iraq.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the Senate Armed Services committee's ranking member and a staunch supporter of the president's plan, said the United States has an obligation to finish the job it started. The support from McCain, a presidential contender for 2008, stood in stark contrast to the opposition from other contenders, including Clinton, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), and Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.).
But in a recent appearance on CNN's Larry King Live, the former Vietnam POW shrugged off concerns that his support for the war could damage his prospects for the presidency: "I would much rather lose an election than lose a war."
At a State of the Union watch party near Dupont Circle in downtown Washington, nearly 100 students and alumni from The Fund for American Studies internship program crowded around a wall-sized projector, filing into rows of folding chairs as Congress filed into the House chamber on C-SPAN.
"It's the political red carpet," quipped Liz Goldberg, 22, balancing a plate of pizza on her lap. "Where's Joan and Melissa?"
A stack of Bush bingo cards started to circulate, featuring such presidential phrases as "Terra (Terror)," "My Wife, Laura," and "Make No Mistake." The instructions: Cross out a phrase every time it appears in the speech. Cross out a line, yell "bingo," and win a prize.
President Bush opened by offering congratulations to "Madam Speaker" Nancy Pelosi, as the first female speaker of the House of Representatives. Faced with the new Democratic majority and splintering Republican support, Bush focused on a moderate domestic agenda, including energy proposals to reduce gasoline consumption by 20 percent over the next 10 years and health-care proposals to improve insurance access. Hot-button topics like New Orleans reconstruction, stem-cell research, and gay marriage were notably absent from this year's address.
"It was very delicate, especially for him," Goldberg said of the speech. "He's usually much more bold, but I think he was cognizant of his present audience." When the topic finally turned to war, Bush asserted that "America must not fail in Iraq," urging the Congress to give his proposed troop surge "a chance" to succeed.
But to Iraqi Fulbright scholar Bilal Wahab, asking for another chance is not enough. "He should be asking for support, for advice," said Wahab, who recently completed his graduate study at American University and will return to his family in Kurdish northern Iraq this month. "The Democrats are in power, so they are responsible as well."
"I understand the frustration about sending more troops," he added. "But opposing the president is not enough. You need to have an alternative plan."
In the Democratic response, Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia charged, "The president took us into this war recklessly." Webb, an ex-Marine whose son is now deployed in Iraq, defeated George Allen in the midterm elections partly because of his vocal opposition to the war.
With some young D.C. professionals, his message resounded strongly.
"I thought Senator Webb's address was pointed," said Mark Gaber, 24. "[He] demonstrated that the Democratic Congress is going to return some realism to Washington."
To conclude the address, Bush wisely sidestepped controversy, focusing instead on the feel-good life stories of basketball star Dikembe Mutombo, war veteran Tommy Rieman, and subway hero Wesley Autrey. Those cued laughter from the students, as the 7-foot-2-inch Mutombo stood and grinned, dwarfing first lady Laura Bush beside him, and when Autrey's sleeping daughter-curled up next to him in the balcony-startled awake during applause for her father.
In a speech that clocked nearly 50 minutes, the president held to the last the traditional introductory declaration, "The state of our union is strong." Moments earlier, a final mention of Afghanistan had prompted a chorus at the back of the room: "Bingo!"