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The Question Petraeus Can't Answer

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By David S. Broder
Sunday, April 13, 2008

When Gen. David Petraeus came to The Post on Friday, he had already answered hundreds of questions in two days of hearings before the House and Senate about his assignment as commander of coalition forces in Iraq.

But he had not really responded to the comments that Sen. Richard Lugar made at the start of the Foreign Relations Committee hearings with the general and Ambassador Ryan Crocker.

The Indiana Republican, one of the real wise men of foreign policy and an ally of the Bush administration, had distilled the committee's previous week of testimony from experts on the Middle East into five "premises" that he said should guide discussions on future U.S. policy.

First, the experts agreed that the surge ordered by President Bush last year and executed by Petraeus has improved conditions on the ground and created "breathing space" for increased economic activity and possible political accommodations.

Second, further security improvements from American efforts are likely to be only marginal, not transformational, in their effects. Significant change awaits political arrangements among Iraqis themselves.

Third, as Lugar said, "despite the improvements in security, the central government has not demonstrated that it can construct a top-down political accommodation for Iraq. The Iraqi government is afflicted by corruption and shows signs of sectarian bias. It still has not secured the confidence of most Iraqis or demonstrated much competence in performing the basic government functions, including managing Iraq's oil wealth, overseeing reconstruction programs, delivering government assistance to the provinces or creating jobs."

Fourth, though many Iraqis are tired of violence, the country's sectarian and tribal groups remain heavily armed and are focused on increasing their own power. For that reason, "Iraq will be an unstable country for the foreseeable future. And if some type of political settlement can be reached, it will be inherently fragile."

Fifth, the Iraq struggle has severely strained the U.S. military. Gen. Richard Cody, the Army's vice chief of staff, was quoted by Lugar as testifying that "lengthy and repeated deployments, with insufficient recovery time at home stations, have placed incredible stress on our soldiers and on their families, testing the resolve of the all-volunteer force like never before." Cody added, "I've never seen our lack of strength of strategic depth be where it is today."

According to those premises, Lugar said, the questions before Congress and the country are much different now from those being asked when the surge strategy was launched. "Today," he said, "the questions are whether and how improvements in security can be converted into political gains that can stabilize Iraq, despite the impending drawdown of United States troops.

"Simply appealing for more time to make progress is insufficient. Debate over how much progress we have made and whether we can make more is less illuminating than determining whether the administration has a definable political strategy that recognizes the time limitations that we face and seeks a realistic outcome designed to protect American vital interests."

In response, during the hearings, Petraeus told Lugar, "We've got to continue. We have our teeth into the jugular, and we need to keep it there."

The general clearly likes that phrase, because he used it twice more during his visit to The Post. I can see why Bush admires his aggressive tone. And I can understand why his troops revere their commander.

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