Last week there was so much hyperbole and pre-trial publicity surrounding General Petraeus’ Congressional testimony that the testimony itself was something of an anti-climax.
Generally, the nature of testimony before House and Senate panels is such that only policy wonks with poorly developed social skills find it the least bit interesting or educational. And only a handful of those, people who are over-caffeinated or off their medication, can remain awake long enough to catch the few nuggets among the tons of slag. Petraeus’ sessions were different to the extent that the subject was of vital importance, but in most other respects they contained all the elements one would expect.
In an environment in which most Americans greatly admire soldiers but abhor politicians, it was not surprising to hear even harsh critics of the policy in Iraq extol General Petraeus’ virtues and those of the brave men and women under his able command. It’s probably accurate to say that there wasn’t a single elected official who didn’t thank Petraeus for his and his troops’ service. Sure, thanks are cheap and thus easy to deliver, but many of my contemporaries recall that 40 years ago service and sacrifice were uniformly castigated, the low cost of gratitude notwithstanding.
Petraeus’ dispassionate prepared remarks were equally predictable, delivered as they were by a man with a powerful ability to focus his energies and ably assisted by a substantial staff. His statement was accompanied by the requisite charts, graphs and other bureaucratic paraphernalia that one typically sees at these sessions. They are prepared by uniformed drones, are impossible to read and are illustrative only to Congressional staffers who get to pore over them afterward.
And the statements of the politicians were not surprising either, especially considering that 80 percent of the combined Senate and House seats are up for grabs in the next election. Listening to these people provided some amusement, particularly when they blabbed so long that they consumed all allotted time, or they were so inarticulate or lacking in knowledge that they sounded mildly demented. Much of what we heard was empty rhetoric, in which successful politicians are highly trained, and contributed nothing to intelligent discourse.
If General Petraeus made one mistake, it was in response to a Congressman’s empty-headed, argumentative question about the General’s ability to choose between a hypothetical law and a contradictory order from the president. He said that he would have to consult his lawyer, an answer that was just as stupid as the question.
Despite all the amateur theatrics and contrived bonhomie, there were three important points to be extracted from the hours of tedium, and they are very important, indeed.
First, it is clear that the Bush administration has surrendered any hope of forging a strong unity government in Iraq. Ambassador Crocker, testifying as Petraeus’ State Department partner, used the term “federation” nearly a dozen times. Clearly, the political model has changed to one resembling that in Afghanistan: weak central government and strong provincial governments. How national unity is supposed to result from such decentralization is anybody’s guess, but at least this reflects the reality of political, religious and tribal life among the Iraqis.
Second, it is equally clear that strengthening Moqtada al-Sadr and his sponsor Iran is an unintended consequence of how we deal with factional leaders. When rogue members of the Mahdi Army are fingered by al-Sadr, we cause them to cease being a problem to him. This is not all bad, since uncontrolled violence is worse than controlled violence, and it reflects the reality of his already considerable strength, but it does result in eliminating Shi’a threats to al-Sadr’s domination.
And now for the withdrawal. General Petraeus said that he recommends withdrawal of about 30,000 troops, and that this withdrawal is predicated on battlefield success. It is certainly true that there has been substantial success in some areas, notably al-Anbar Province and some neighborhoods in Baghdad. But military doctrine teaches that commanders should exploit success, and so one would expect the surge forces to be strengthened, or at the very least replaced in kind. Instead, they will be withdrawn, and the reason is that the level of deployment is not sustainable with the meager forces we have, particularly in the Army and the Marines. That, too, is reality.
So when General Petraeus said that he is a realist, he wasn’t kidding. It’s just too bad that the reality is unpleasant.
Jack Jacobs is an MSNBC military analyst. He is a retired U.S. Army colonel. He earned the Medal of Honor for exceptional heroism on the battlefields of Vietnam and also has three Bronze Stars and two Silver Stars.