For two days, Eric Black has been blogging as he listens to the Petraeus-Crocker hearings.
Norm Coleman Just Asked Petraeus and Crocker a Good Question…
… but he got a non-answer.
Essentially Coleman’s question was: Is there some measure of progress toward the U.S. goal in Iraq — military progress, governmental, either or both — that can be objectively verified, that the administration is willing to be held to?
Coleman: “We need something more than just saying give us more time to come back in the fall.”
Both Crocker and Petraeus gave long answers, but I didn’t hear either of them say yes, here is the best way to objectively measure progress, and if we can’t get this number down to this level in this time frame, we won’t come back and tell you that we’re making adequate progress. Details below the jump:
Sen. Norm Coleman (who is a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which is taking today’s version of the Petraeus-Crocker report) just had his first five-minute turn. I don’t have transcript, but here are my hastily typed notes:
Coleman: You talk about it’s gonna take time, it’s gonna take time. But we know there will be setbacks ahead. More folks will pull out of the government. Al Qaida may be on the run, but they’re clearly not out.
They have the capability to commit massive violence.
So I’m asking for objective measures of progress. It’s fine to say the benchmarks aren’t it. But can we put on the table objective measures that we can look back at if things get shaky, so that we can tell whether we are still on the path to progress.
He asked Crocker how to measure progress toward success toward power-sharing among Iraq’s ethnosectarian groups.
Then after telling Petraeus that he applauded the goals for troop drawdowns that Petraeus has already recommended, he asked for the same thing as applied to military progress: “We need to see some plan out there.”
The U.S. Institute for Peace has recently said that the number of U.S. troops could be cut in half within three years and that the U.S. bases could be turned over to the Iraqis within five years. Does Petraeus have similar specific goals, tied to a time frame like that? “We need something more than just saying give us more time to come back in the fall.”
In reply, Crocker talked about what progress would look like to him but gave nothing that could be measured. He wants to see signs that the ethnosectarian tensions are turning from a street fight into a peaceful political competition. (Fine, but what’s the measurement and what’s the goal?)
He talked about evidence that the central government is making progress at taking apart the militias. (Good one. How will you objectively measure success and what’s an acceptable pace?) He applauded recent evidence that some Shia have started to reject the violent methods of the Mahdi Army as the Sunni have against Al Qaida in Iraq. (Fine. Measurement?)
Petraeus mentioned that the charts he showed yesterday in the House showed reduction of U.S. troops below the pre-surge level of 130,000 (he called them “stair steps”), but he acknowledged that these further reductions were not attached to any time frame (“the timing is to be determined”).
Then he likewise said the goal is to shift the mission, “from leading to partnering to various forms of overwatch as we transfer responsibilities to the Iraqi forces” but again did not suggest a time frame nor a way to measure whether adequate progress was being made.
Is it possible they couldn’t understand what Coleman was asking, or are they just determined never to commit to any definition of progress that can be measured and verified?
As far as I could tell, Coleman got none of what he asked for. I’ll try to find out whether he saw it that way.
Petraeus Testimony: Closing Impressions on September 10
With all the time I spent typing while trying to listen, I may have missed it, but I didn’t hear anything from any member of Congress during the day that suggested they had moved an inch in their feelings about Iraq as a result of the Petraeus and Crocker testimony. I take we ended up right where we started. Speaker Nancy Pelosi has quickly announced that the Democrats weren’t buying:
“The president promised the American people that this surge would be a short-term effort to provide space for political reform and national reconciliation in Iraq,” Pelosi said. “Today, despite overwhelming evidence that neither goal has been achieved, General Petraeus testified that the surge would last at least until next summer. This is simply unacceptable.”
On the other hand, I didn’t hear much new wobbling coming from Republicans on the committee.
The work of the blogosphere, but also the mainstream media, in aggressively fact-checking and bluntly disputing the testimony suggests something else, some kinda inspiring.
Gen. Petraeus defends his 2004 op-ed
Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) challenged Gen. Petraeus about the 2004 Washington Post op-ed Petraeus wrote, giving an upbeat portrait of the progress he was making in getting Iraqi troops ready to stand up, so U.S. troops could stand down.
Engel asked why we should believe that his relatively optimistic assessment today will turn out to be any more accurate than his relatively optimistic assessment. Since I’ve referred to the op-ed twice, suggesting it stands as a blow to Petraeus’ credibility, it’s only fair I give his reply.
Petraeus thanked Engel for the opportunity defend the piece, because “I stand by it.” He noted that it contained several notes of caution, in which he said there were still many challenges ahead in Iraq. (That’s true, but any honest reading of the whole piece will indicate it communicates a sense of positive momentum that cannot be easily reconciled with the past three years of lack of progress toward the U.S. handoff to Iraqi troops.)
Petraeus also mentioned the Feb. 2006 bombing of the “Golden Dome” in Samarra, which he said was a key turning point in the onset of the Iraqi civil war. President Bush has also relied on the Samarra bombing in explaining to the nation why things turned sour in Iraq.
I’m a Ryan Crocker fan
A short comment
I became an admirer of Ambassador Ryan Crocker since I read this Washington Post profile of him as he was being named to his current impossible job.
It included this:
“In late 2002, as the Bush administration prepared for war, then-Secretary of State Colin L. Powell tasked Crocker and Assistant Secretary of State William Burns with exploring the risks of military intervention. The result was a six-page memo they entitled “The Perfect Storm,” according to an account in Washington Post reporter Karen DeYoung’s biography ‘Soldier: The Life of Colin Powell.’
The memo bluntly predicted that toppling Hussein could unleash long-repressed sectarian and ethnic tensions, that the Sunni minority would not easily relinquish power, and that powerful neighbors such as Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia would try to move in to influence events. It also cautioned that the United States would have to start from scratch building a political and economic system because Iraq’s infrastructure was in tatters.”
That memo was not intended for public consumption. I know of no reason to question Ambassador Crocker’s integrity. But I also know of no case in which an ambassador has been expected to say publicly anything that was inconsistent with the line taken by the administration for which he or she worked.
First reaction to Petraeus-Crocker
Writing during the first break in the hearing.
I’m trying to listen with an open mind to Petraeus and Crocker. It’s hard, probably impossible, when the main substance of their presentations have been known in advance, and have been debunked in advance by critics who have become more and more sure-footed by years of experience and more and more convincing by years of turning out to be right.
For example, if I understand correctly, after the token withdrawal of one of the 20 combat brigades in December, Gen. Petraeus suggests (no guarantees) that by next summer, the total U.S. force might be down to 15 brigades, which I understand to be the level of U.S. forces before the surge began. The possibility of further reductions is mentioned without even target dates.
One problem: We have been told repeatedly that the full surge cannot be sustained beyond next spring without “breaking” the U.S. military. Is Petraeus simply claiming that the withdrawal that will forced by events will be made possible by future successes that he can’t guarantee?
Surmise: It’s really too late for anyone speaking for this administration to claim to see a light at the end of the tunnel. It’s possible that these two are right, and the light is there.
But to me, the only evidence of serious forward progress would be sustained declines across several months in the total amount of violence in Iraq, the total deaths, both U.S. troops and Iraqi civilians, and sustained improvement in the Iraqi economy, and it would have to be measured by neutral, non-administration officials using the most straightforward, transparent and verifiable methods.
Short of that, my gut feeling is that the long-awaited Petraeus-Crocker moment leaves us where we were, with Pres. Bush planning to sustain high troop levels, in the combat zones, and vowing to veto anything that deviates from that. Dems, lacking any hope of overriding a veto, lacking the willingness to cut off funds, hope it will be the issue that puts them in control of the executive and legislative branches in 2009.
And if that happens, and if the U.S. withdraws or substantially reduces its presence sometime in 2009, we will begin to the learn the answer to the most unknowable of questions, which is whether that will turn out to be one more disaster, for the Iraqis and perhaps for the United States, to follow the ones we have seen so far.