Gen. David Petraeus is back on Capitol Hill, talking about "progress" and pleading for more "patience." We all know the drill by now. Perhaps some lawmaker will ask him questions like these:
1. General Petraeus, four years ago you were in charge of training the Iraqi troops to stand up so that American soldiers could stand down. You insisted at the time that the training was going well. In fact, you wrote in The Washington Post: "I see tangible progress. Iraqi security elements are being rebuilt from the ground up...Training is on track and increasing in capacity....Considerable progress is also being made in the reconstruction and refurbishing of infrastructure for Iraq’s security forces...Iraq’s security forces are developing steadily and they are in the fight." That's what you said in 2004. Yet, today, Iraqi troops are still unable to take the lead in any significant battle, and when they tried to take on the Shiite militias in Basra late last month, more than 1000 soldiers deserted - along with some top Iraqi commanders. How do these realities square with your 2004 claims of "significant progress" in the training of the Iraqi troops?
2. Following up on that question, when do you realistically believe that the Iraqis will finally be able to defend themselves by fighting their own battles? And what realistic metrics are you using? The date originally envisioned by Iraqi officials was late 2006, but our Defense Department was repeatedly revised that timetable. Now it's supposed to be July of this year, but we all know that is fiction. Given the fact that your 2004 optimism has not been borne out by events, can you now provide more credible forecast criteria?
3. General, it's already clear that, at the end of 2008, we will have more troops in Iraq than we did when the "surge" was launched. Yet there is abundant evidence that our commitment is seriously impacting our combat troops. An official Army survey of soldiers' mental health now shows that more than 25 percent are suffering from clinical anxiety, depression, or acute stress - much of it triggered by the repeated redeployments. And the Joint Chiefs of Staff told President Bush last month that they are deeply concerned about these stresses on the soldiers. How long can we realistically be expected to bail out the Iraqis before our own military is broken?
4. General, when Prime Minister Maliki sent his government troops into battle late last month against the Shiite militias that are loyal to the cleric Moktada al-Sadr, President Bush hailed Maliki's move as "a defining moment" in the evolution of "a free Iraq." Given the failure of Maliki's military venture, would you agree with your president that this was a "defining moment"? And would you agree with Senator John McCain, who said at the outset of battle that Maliki's move was "a sign of the strength of his governnment"?
5. Let's see if we have this right: We're arming the minority Sunnis, and, even though we routinely denounce Iranian influence, we're nevertheless arming the Iranian-backed Shiite Maliki government, which in turn is fighting al-Sadr as well as other Iranian-backed Shiite warlords. Given all these complexities, general, what constitutes "victory" in Iraq?
6. General, when you appeared on Capitol Hill last September, you were asked whether the surge strategy would succeed in making America safer. You replied, "I don't know, actually." Do you feel today that the war, as waged during the last seven months, has made America safer? Failing that, have you at least made Americans in the Green Zone safer - or, as we have now learned, is it too risky to even go to the fitness center?
7. General, on the issue of incremental U.S. troop withdrawals, there appears to be a Catch-22 in the Bush administration's position. If the situation in Iraq is "fragile," to use the word of one official, then it's deemed foolish to send troops home, because that would make the situation worse. Yet even when Bush officials speak of "progress" in Iraq, it's still deemed foolish to send troops home, lest the progress be jeopardized. In other words, apparently we can't draw down when things are bad, and we can't draw down when things are good. Is there a third scenario that has escaped us, that would allow for gradual withdrawals?
8. General, one of your staunchest supporters is Senator John McCain. After he returned from his most recent trip to Iraq, McCain said, "We're succeeding. I don't care what anybody says." Could you please provide a more nuanced assessment? For instance, the State Department has determined that Iraq this month is providing less electricity to its citizens (58 percent of demand) that it did during the same month one year ago (66 percent of demand). President Bush originally intended to make Iraq safe more democracy. Would it be more realistic, as a measurement of success, to strive to at least make Iraq safe for electricity?
9. General, the experts who advised the original Iraq Study Group have now issued a new report. This report concludes that Iraqi political reconciliation - the ultimate goal of the surge - has been "slow, halting and superficial," and that the political divisions are "so pronounced" that we are no closer to leaving Iraq than we were one year ago, in the early phase of the surge. Do you have any evidence that further American military deaths, and further American expenditures (at the current rate of $3 billion a week), will somehow convince the warring Iraqi factions to reconcile?
10. Last September, President Bush told the deputy prime minister of Australia that, with respect to the American surge in Iraq, "we're kicking ass." Seven months have passed. General, are we kicking ass?
UPDATE: We have an answer to question #6...well, sort of an answer. Asked again today whether the war is making America safer, Petraeus replied: "It can only be answered by history, once the outcome in Iraq has been determined."
UPDATE: Not even Petraeus feels comfortable joining McCain in the waving of pom poms.
Here was McCain on Iraq this morning, the "maverick" in full Bush mode: "We can now look ahead to the genuine prospect of success."
Here was Petraeus, a few hours later: "We haven't seen any lights at the end of the tunnel. The champagne bottle has been pushed to the back of the refrigerator."