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Bush to Endorse Petraeus Plan

Gen. David H. Petraeus assured lawmakers that progress is being made in Iraq, albeit slowly.
Gen. David H. Petraeus assured lawmakers that progress is being made in Iraq, albeit slowly. (By Nikki Kahn -- The Washington Post)

The two men, however, were unable to offer the assurances lawmakers sought. Asked by Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) whether the Iraqis could achieve reconciliation by the end of the administration, Crocker said: "I could not put a timeline on it or a target date."

When Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.) asked Petraeus whether the new policy would make the United States safer, he replied: "Sir, I don't know, actually." Later in the hearing, the general sought to amend his answer to yes, telling Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.): "We have very, very clear and very serious national interests in Iraq."

The tone of the questions yesterday was more skeptical and carried a harder edge than what greeted the two men before the House panels on Monday. Several senior Republicans who have already voiced skepticism about the president's Iraq policy raised pointed doubts that a six-month continuation of the "surge" would have much impact on resolving Iraq's fundamental problems -- as did a number of vulnerable GOP incumbents considered swing votes on upcoming Iraq legislation.

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), a member of the Armed Services Committee, said she could not accept having the same number of troops in Iraq in 10 months as there were 10 months ago, as would be the case if Bush adopts Petraeus's recommendation.

"If a troop surge of this size has not prompted the Iraqis to undertake the political reforms that both General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker say are essential to quelling the sectarian violence, then how does continuing the same strategy prompt the Iraqis to take a different direction?" she asked.

Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.), another swing voter, pressed Petraeus and Crocker to offer an assurance that "we are on a path" to political reconciliation. "Americans want to see light at the end of the tunnel," he said.

Petraeus and Crocker responded with equanimity, repeating their mantra that progress is being made, albeit slowly and perhaps not in the manner they had once hoped. Challenged by Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) to explain why continued patience is justified, Petraeus pointed to how the Iraqi government is sharing oil revenue and giving former insurgents conditional amnesty -- both key benchmarks that have not been formally met with the passage of legislation by the Iraqi parliament.

"That's the type of activity that gives me some encouragement," Petraeus said.

Among the questioners were several leading presidential candidates, who used their allotted time to sharpen their messages. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) told Petraeus and Crocker: "We have now set the bar so low that modest improvement in what was a completely chaotic situation, to the point where now we just have the levels of intolerable violence that existed in June of 2006, is considered success. And it's not."

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) told the two men that they had made "extraordinary efforts" in their testimony but that "the reports that you provide to us really require the willing suspension of disbelief."

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), by contrast, said he is "sick at heart" about the mismanagement of the war. But he added: "I believe we cannot choose to lose in Iraq, and I will do everything in my power to see that our commanders in Iraq have the time and support they request to win this war."

Petraeus's embrace of a timeline for troop withdrawals -- no matter how modest -- appears to have shifted the debate on Capitol Hill from whether forces will come home to when and how quickly.

Rep. Phil English (R-Pa.), a moderate who is trying to broker more bipartisanship on Iraq, said that the general is "probably setting more a minimum than a maximum," adding that the numbers "could be substantially more."

Collins said she will double efforts to pass legislation she co-sponsored with Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) that would mandate a change of mission away from combat and toward training Iraqi forces, countering terrorism, guarding borders and protecting U.S. assets. The legislation would not mandate troop withdrawals, but, she said, she has been advised that the remaining goals could be accomplished with 50,000 to 60,000 U.S. troops.

On a separate track, Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) said he has been meeting with Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.) to revise legislation that would have required a timeline for withdrawal. Efforts to take up that language in July received 52 votes, well short of the 60 needed to break a Republican filibuster.

Smith said the new version would turn hard deadlines for withdrawals into nonbinding goals and would shift the emphasis from troop withdrawals to mission changes. The performance of Petraeus and Crocker has probably shored up opposition to firm withdrawal dates, he said. But 120,000 troops in Iraq next summer is not going over well, either.

"We need a transition to a mission post-surge," Smith said.

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