Frustrated Senators See No Exit Signs

Army Gen. David Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker, the two top U.S. officials in Iraq, are in Washington this week to update Congress on the status of the Iraq war. Senate hearings on Tuesday gave three leading contenders for the White House a chance to question both Petraeus and Crocker and promote their approaches to the five-year-old war.
By Karen DeYoung and Thomas E. Ricks
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Asked repeatedly yesterday what "conditions" he is looking for to begin substantial U.S. troop withdrawals from Iraq after this summer's scheduled drawdown, Army Gen. David H. Petraeus said he will know them when he sees them. For frustrated lawmakers, it was not enough.

"A year ago, the president said we couldn't withdraw because there was too much violence," said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.). "Now he says we can't afford to withdraw because violence is down." Asked Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.): "Where do we go from here?"

Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said: "I think people want a sense of what the end is going to look like."

But the bottom line was that there was no bottom line. In testimony before the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees, Petraeus, the top U.S. military commander in Iraq, and U.S. Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker echoed what they said seven months ago in their last update to Congress -- often using similar words. Iraq's armed forces continue to improve, overall levels of violence are lower than they were last year, and political reconciliation is happening, albeit still more slowly than they would like.

"Iraq is hard, and reconciliation is hard," Crocker said in September. Yesterday, he added: "Almost everything about Iraq is hard."

In eight hours of testimony, the two men danced around the question of what constitutes success in Iraq. "As I've explained, again, from a military perspective," Petraeus said wearily as the day drew to a close, ". . . what we want to do is to look at conditions and determine where it is without taking undue risks. This is all about risk."

"We'll look at the circumstances and assess," Crocker said, as he and Petraeus spoke of "battlefield geometry" and "political-military calculus."

What worked in September -- an overall sense of progress that gave the Bush administration additional time to pursue its "surge" policy of sending nearly 30,000 more troops to Iraq -- sparked little enthusiasm this time among lawmakers who had hoped for a brighter light at the end of the tunnel. Much of their frustration appeared to stem from a realization that there was little they could do to affect policy in the administration's final nine months.

Petraeus said he has recommended to President Bush that the planned withdrawal of the five "surge" combat brigades by the end of July be followed by a 45-day hiatus for "consolidation and evaluation." Then, Petraeus said, he would begin "a process of assessment to examine the conditions on the ground" and determine whether to recommend "further reductions as conditions permit."

The scheduled withdrawals, Armed Services Chairman Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.) said dismissively, are "just the next page in a war plan with no exit strategy."

Several Republicans were effusive in their praise for Petraeus, Crocker and the administration's policy. "We are no longer staring into the abyss of defeat," said Sen. John McCain (Ariz.). Instead, the presumed GOP presidential nominee said that "success is within reach."

McCain hedged his bets with other tough questions, but he left it to others to throw their support behind administration policy. "According to some, we should fire you," Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) told the witnesses. "It sounds like . . . really nothing good has happened in the last year and this is a hopeless endeavor. Well, I beg to differ."

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