Congress's Iraq Quagmire

Thursday, January 25, 2007

ON TUESDAY nearly every member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee warmly endorsed Lt. Gen. David H. Petraeus, the new U.S. commander in Iraq, and a number wished him success or "Godspeed" in his mission. Yesterday some of the same senators voted for a resolution that opposes the increase of troops for Gen. Petraeus's command -- even though the general testified that he could not accomplish his mission without the additional forces and hinted that such a resolution could encourage the enemy. Such is the muddle of Congress on Iraq: A majority may soon go on record opposing the new offensive in Baghdad even while encouraging the commander who leads it.

That's not to say that senators who are piling on to bipartisan resolutions drawn up by Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) or Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.) don't have good reasons for skepticism. We share some of their main concerns: that the Iraqi government won't deliver on the long list of "benchmarks" the administration has set and that U.S. troops will end up fighting on one or both sides of an ugly sectarian war. Even if the objective of pacifying Baghdad with American troops were a good one, it's not clear that enough troops are being sent for long enough to succeed.

It doesn't help that accounts of the new plan given by its principal architects vary significantly. Gen. Petraeus said in his Senate testimony that the goal is to protect the Iraqi population in Baghdad so that reconstruction and the political process can move forward. The man he will replace, Gen. George W. Casey Jr., and his spokesmen say the idea is to accelerate training and the handover of security operations to Iraqis. So does Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who seems to barely tolerate the plan for additional American troops.

The outgoing Iraq commander has said two additional U.S. brigades could accomplish the mission. The incoming general says he has asked that orders be issued for all five brigades and stressed that he has the authority to ask for further reinforcements. He testified: "None of this will be rapid. In fact, the way ahead will be neither quick nor easy."

Our guess is that it is Gen. Petraeus's concept that will govern U.S. actions on the ground. Until now, Gen. Petraeus had been the most successful American commander in the war; in that sense senators are right to support him and quickly approve his nomination. But legislators need a better way to act on their opposition to the current policy than the passage of nonbinding resolutions that may cover them politically but have no practical impact -- other than, perhaps, the negative one suggested by the general.

As it happens, Gen. Petraeus made his own suggestion at Tuesday's hearing, offering to report to Congress regularly about the mission, including updates on the performance by Iraqis on their commitments. "I want to assure you that should I determine that the new strategy cannot succeed, I will provide such an assessment," he said. Taking Gen. Petraeus up on that, and closely and systematically monitoring the progress of events in Iraq during the coming months, is probably the best contribution that Congress can make to helping the new American commander address what he calls a "dire" situation.

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