No lawmaker dared criticize Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of American forces in Iraq, as he walked into four congressional hearings last week with four stars atop each shoulder and ribbons stacked across his chest.
Some labeled Petraeus' return historic, like that of Vietnam War commander William Westmoreland, whose 1967 testimony before Congress helped soften an unpopular war. But to others it mattered little that Petraeus had good news: War critics want combat over U.S involvement in Iraq, no matter what.
Washington lawmakers and pundits waited eight months for the Petraeus report, the definitive review meant to tell the country how the United States is performing against a deadly counterinsurgency in Iraq. Since a strategy shift by President Bush in late 2006 that put 30,000 additional troops in Iraq (the last of whom arrived in June), the Bush administration has asked both critics and hesitant allies to defer judgment on the war until Petraeus returned.
Now the results are in: Civilian deaths are down 45 percent across Iraq since their height last December, and down 70 percent in Baghdad. Ethnic and sectarian violence, a subset of civilian deaths, has also seen a corresponding, dramatic dip. With the success, Petraeus recommended the extra troops come home by next July.
Petraeus and his political counterpart in Baghdad, U.S. ambassador Ryan Crocker, made an impressive duo in the somber and packed congressional chambers. Petraeus, son of a Dutch sea captain, co-wrote the U.S. military manual on counterinsurgencies. Crocker, a top-ranked envoy, is known for his Middle East expertise and for taking his fluency in Arabic into Baghdad neighborhoods.
Both men's sober testimony was far from triumphal. They managed to snatch a rhetorical weapon from their opponents by acknowledging Iraq's "frustrating" lack of political progress and still tenuous local security forces. Under sometimes emotional questioning, the two sat unflappable. The report, the men, and their manner were too reasonable for reproach, but that did not keep many-even before the hearings-from trying to discredit them.
One unnamed Democratic senator told Politico.com, "No one wants to call [Petraeus] a liar on national TV. The expectation is that the outside groups will do this for us." Almost on cue, activist group MoveOn.org took a full-page New York Times advertisement Sept. 10 that was denounced by Republicans: "General Petraeus, or General Betray Us?"
At the hearings protesters were scarce but loud, and often bedecked in Code Pink's Statue of Liberty Crowns and pink T-shirts. On the first day, irritable House Armed Services Committee chairman Ike Skelton (D-Mo.) promised to prosecute disrupters. Some found themselves led away in handcuffs; five Capitol police officers wrestled to the floor one robed clergyman who wanted to speak inside the hearing room. On a street corner, a man in a green suit toted two megaphones but needed neither as he bellowed, "No more! Stop this war!"
After some five hours testifying before the House, by Day 2-Sept. 11-the focus was less on Petraeus and Crocker than on the presidential candidates on the Senate's foreign relations and armed services committees. With five presidential candidates on the two bodies, the hearings became campaign platforms.
Illinois Democrat Barack Obama walked in later to a cacophony of clicking camera shutters, then swallowed his allotted seven minutes with an intense gaze and indignant speech calling Iraq a "disastrous foreign policy mistake." Of the surge, he said, "I would argue its impact has been relatively modest given the investment." Then striking a presidential tone: "How long will this take and at what point do we say, 'Enough'?"
Senators drew ammunition from other Iraq War progress reports released to coincide with Petraeus' testimony. One from the Government Accountability Office said the government of Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki has failed to meet 11 of 18 benchmarks Washington set. Another said Iraq's security forces would be unable to take over for another 18 months.
At the top of Petraeus' list of successes, however, is Anbar Province, the largest of Iraq's 18 provinces and the one-time stronghold of the Sunni insurgency. Considered deadly and politically lost a year ago, the western region has seen an about-face. Monthly attacks have dropped from 1,350 in October 2006 to about 200 in August 2007.
The shift came largely because local tribes began rejecting its power-grabbing al-Qaeda fighters and their harsh Islamic style of rule-one reason the president made a surprise Labor Day visit to Iraq and to Anbar to illustrate the improvement. With less fanfare, the same has happened north of Anbar, where Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, the former vice president of Saddam's revolutionary council and No. 6 on the "deck of cards" of the U.S. 55 most wanted, announced he would "sever ties with al-Qaeda" and open a dialogue "with the Baghdad government and foreign forces." In 2004 al-Douri swore an oath of allegiance to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, then head of al-Qaeda in Iraq.
The question now is how quickly Anbar's success can spread to Iraq's other provinces. Crocker said other provinces, such as Diyala and Ninevah, are seeing more political progress on the local, if not national level. Leaders are trying to work out their provincial budgets and rebuild their cities. "No longer is an all-powerful Baghdad seen as the panacea to Iraq's problems," Crocker noted. On the national front, despite an absence of oil-revenue sharing laws, Baghdad is still distributing oil wealth among Iraq's provinces. Iraq is exporting oil through Turkey for the first time in years, and the government was able to sell its cell-phone frequencies for a handy $3.75 billion.
Foreign Relations Chairman Joe Biden (D-Del.) was skeptical: "If we killed or captured every jihadist in Iraq tomorrow, we would still face a major sectarian war that is putting Iraq's future and American lives in jeopardy," he said in his opening statement. Biden once authored a paper calling for just the sort of localized approach that appears to be having success in Iraq, but in the televised hearings the presidential candidate began by calling for an immediate troop withdrawal.
With Bush set to approve Petraeus' request for limited troop withdrawal and to endorse his general's report in a Sept. 13 address to the nation, Petraeus declined to project a further drawdown in Iraq beyond next July. To do so, he said, could be "rushing to failure." That is crucial now that Iran is exerting more influence through Shia militias, responsible for political assassinations and especially deadly explosive devices.
Whatever their complaints, Democrats know that Petraeus has salvaged the Bush administration's case in Iraq for perhaps another year. Despite the persistence of lawmakers who will be running for office at that time, Petraeus admitted, "Our experience in Iraq has repeatedly shown that projecting too far into the future is not just difficult, it can be misleading and even hazardous." In 2004 he wrote an optimistic column about how quickly Iraqi security forces could function. That attitude prompted Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) to order the general at the hearing to "take off your rosy glasses." But as Petraeus, his Washington grilling over, returns to Baghdad, he is perhaps more aware than most of the reality: "This is going on three years for me, on top of a year deployment to Bosnia, as well, so my family also knows something about sacrifice."