By Dana Milbank
Thursday, April 10, 2008
What does Gen. David Petraeus have in common with the alleged D.C. Madam? More than you might think.
In character, the four-star general commanding U.S. troops in Iraq could hardly be further from escort-service owner Deborah Jeane Palfrey, who is accused of running a prostitution ring. But a coincidence of the calendar put them in similar positions yesterday: She sat in a courtroom facing accusations from her former escorts who had turned against her, while, six blocks away, he sat in a House hearing room facing hostile questions from once-loyal Republican lawmakers.
"The people of the United States have paid an awful price," thundered Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. "It's time for the Iraqis to pay that price for their own protection."
"I still have a hard time seeing the big picture and what constitutes success," complained Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.). "That's not just one side of the aisle with those kind of concerns. Many on this side of the aisle have that as well."
Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.) demanded an explanation for President Bush's unmet promise that the Iraqi government would take over security for all provinces. "Of course, that has not happened," Tancredo complained. "I'm just wondering whether, General Petraeus, you have any idea of why he made that statement?"
By the end of the day, the general and his sidekick, Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker, had become accomplished in the art of gulping.
When he appeared before Congress seven months ago, the general was greeted as a returning war hero. But missiles are again raining on the Green Zone in Baghdad, and sadder but wiser lawmakers tempered their enthusiasm.
For the newly skeptical, Petraeus gave the not-entirely-successful defense that he could not define success in Iraq, but that he would know it when he sees it -- much like the late Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's view of pornography.
This, of course, brings us to the D.C. Madam, who was having far bigger problems than the general. Her claim: that she never expected her escorts to have sex with clients. Under questioning by federal prosecutors, the escorts reluctantly but resoundingly refuted this claim.
A young redhead named Christy testified about the terms of her employment, which earned her $300 to $500 for a 90-minute gig. "I knew that I would basically have to have sex for money," she explained before breaking down in tears. "If it was asked of me, I'd be willing to do it."
The most damning testimony came from a 63-year-old occupational therapist with an Ivy League degree and a PhD. She calmly explained her various "appointments," mostly in homes and hotel rooms, but "a few times in offices, one time in a shopping mall." She explained how she spoke with Palfrey about the demeaning sex roles men asked her to play. "She said, 'Don't take it personally -- men like fantasy,' " she recalled.
Still, there are limits to every man's interest in fantasy -- and in the Rayburn House Office Building, lawmakers had grown weary of the administration's visions of triumph in Iraq.
"I think all of us, certainly I, feel very strongly that the Iraqi government needs to do more," Rep. John McHugh (R-N.Y.) advised Petraeus and Crocker when they appeared before the Armed Services Committee in the morning.
"None of us like the cost of this," added Rep. Terry Everett (R-Ala.).
"Is our presence in Iraq equivalent to a temporary plug in a hole in the dike?" inquired Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-Md.).
Rep. Randy Forbes (R-Va.) spoke of constituents struggling with higher gas prices and wondering if "Iraq is worth $608 billion to us. How do we answer the housewife, factory worker?"
There were lawmakers who remained as devoted to Petraeus as they were last September. Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) went through his family tree as he expressed his own gratitude and that of his four sons and his grandchildren -- including one who "will be born this weekend."
But the reception for Petraeus only worsened in the afternoon before the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.) taunted the general with a variation on a World War I song. "We're there because we're there because we're there because we're there, and it never ends," the congressman said. "I'd liken your job to that of Sisyphus."
With polls showing that two-thirds of Americans regard the war as a mistake, even such a stalwart as Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.) had to acknowledge that "right now, the war is very unpopular."
Politely, Flake reminded Petraeus and Crocker that Congress could cut off funds for the war. "We do have the power of the purse, and we desperately want to see success, but a lot of us are concerned," he said.
Rohrabacher wasn't quite so delicate. If Iraqis don't pay for their security, he threatened, "there's going to be trouble on the Republican side, as well as the Democratic side, of getting support for an ongoing conflict."
It was a tough day for the general. If it's any consolation, the Madam's day was worse.