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Petraeus report left audience wanting more

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Those who expected the Senate testimony of Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker to shed light on American plans in Iraq must be sorely disappointed. Those who expected the testimony to be an opportunity for senators and representatives to grill the two officials, forget it. And for those who expected the sessions to be the best of representative government in action, this had to have been quite a letdown.

No committee member of either house left the committee room any better informed than he was when he entered, and neither Petraeus nor Crocker left thinking that he had convinced anybody of anything. The format of a congressional hearing is not inquest, trial, or investigation. It’s not even a question-and-answer session. It is political theater and is meant to be nothing else.

Consider that each member is given just a few minutes to ask questions. In the best of circumstances, this would be barely enough time for one important question and its complete, though probably succinct, answer. But every member began his turn with a statement of some sort, usually a paean extolling the witnesses’ service and the dedication of their subordinates, or else a vitriolic screed directed at the administration and/or its policy. By the time the member began to ask his question, about half his allotted time had expired. The question itself usually included a preface of some sort as well, leaving the witness only enough time to issue a brief and unenlightening response.

Witnesses provided next to nothing

As for the witnesses, they stuck to their scripts and divulged very little, although it must be said in their defense that they were asked few reasonable questions that would elicit anything interesting or informative. On Wednesday, the show, including substantially the identical opening statements and a similar program of showmanship, played again in the House of Representatives.

If there were any mild fireworks, they revolved on the annoyance of the senators, principally chairman Joe Biden, that negotiations between the State Department and the government of Iraq may result in a document that would require exercise the Senate’s prerogative to ratify treaties. And Sen. Menendez recited statistics that purported to show the failure of the Iraqi reconstruction effort, but his data seemed to have an unverifiable and perhaps specious provenance. But in neither case is it likely that the Senate will be able to throw its weight around on these subjects during this Congress.

To most of us who want enlightenment, the proceedings seem frustrating and fruitless, but they will always fail to satisfy because their purpose is not to provide it. The witnesses were not really speaking to the senators and congressmen. Their remarks were really directed at the committee staffs. And the members were not talking to the witnesses. They were speaking to the American people. With respect to the latter, remember that three of the senators want to be president, several want to be vice president and one-third of all of them are running for re-election. In the House, they are all running for office. One can hardly expect anything more sophisticated than rhetoric and demagoguery.

And for those who watch these things from abroad, they must be either confused or amused by the procedure. Anyone in the market for a political system may reconsider using as a model the American form of Republican democracy.

Jack Jacobs is a military analyst and 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.