Petraeus: Don’t Break Out the Champagne Yet

 In Iraq

Day one of the Petraeus and Crocker hearings before the Senate brought few surprises from the two star witnesses.  General Petraeus indicated that the American people shouldn’t hold their breath waiting for big changes, noting, “the champagne bottle has been moved to the back of the refrigerator.” Petraeus advocated a 45-day “pause” for troop withdrawals after July.  The pause would be followed by a “process of assessment” to determine whether more troop withdrawals would be feasible (apparently there is no time available to “assess” during those 45 days).

There were the usual splits in the Senate, with proponents of the war falling all over themselves to praise Petraeus and Crocker for their “success” thus far in Iraq. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) wanted to give Petraeus a promotion: “You know, according to some, we should fire you. It sounds like, that everything is just — really nothing good has happened in the last year and this is a hopeless endeavor. Well, I beg to differ. If I could promote you to five stars, I would.” Sen. Joe Lieberman (can I just start putting an “R” here now? – CT) even went so far as to say that Iraq has seen more political progress than the US: “Hey, let’s be honest about this. The Iraqi political leadership has achieved a lot more political reconciliation and progress since September than the American political leadership has.” I would have gained a lot more insight if Jon Stewart had been interviewing Petraeus rather than many of these seasoned members of Congress.

For their part, opponents of the war tried in vain to nail down an idea of what “conditions” Petraeus and Crocker would consider sufficient for starting a withdrawal of US troops. Not surprisingly, they were unable to get clear answers or any indication about when further troop withdrawals might start.  Perhaps these members of Congress should attend one of our birddogging trainings to learn how to pin down slippery political types. Unsatisfied with the results of the hearings thus far, Democrats are vowing to take action in the next few months to limit war policy, though they are pessimistic about their ability to get results.  We will have to work to keep the pressure on then this year to make sure they do not give up and decide to sit on their hands until a new president is elected (I don’t even like bringing up the prospect of a President McCain, but it is a possibility and all that hand-sitting won’t help them much if it happens).

While there are plenty of topics from the hearings to talk about—Al Qaeda, elections, political reconciliation—there are two recurring themes that I found interesting (or should I say disconcerting):

Iran’s influence in Iraq: Before the hearings, there was quite a bit of buzz generated about the likely focus on Iran’s  influence in Iraq, including this report that British officials feared that it would be used as a pretext for action against Iran.  Here at Peace Action West, we have been working on promoting diplomacy with Iran and preventing military action for a while now, and it has been a constant guessing game with lots of people speculating about whether US military action is imminent.  While I won’t presume to make any estimates, the senators and the witnesses did not disappoint those who wanted to hear about Iran’s supposed threat in Iraq. The Washington Post notes the extreme language Petraeus and Crocker used, referring to Iran’s “nefarious activities” and “malign influence” and noting that it posed “the greatest long-term threat to the viability” of the Iraqi government. This rhetoric certainly reinforces the idea that we need to be vigilant in pushing for direct negotiations with Iran as a critical step in stabilizing Iraq and resolving other tensions.

Blaming the Iraqis: Another troubling, though again not surprising, trend was foisting most of the blame for this situation on the Iraqi people, as in “our troops are doing such a great job, but those Iraqis just won’t get with the program.”  This seems to be a popular position for members of Congress who want to oppose the war but don’t want to be accused of criticizing our military.  Unfortunately, this backs people into a corner and hurts their ability to make the case later on that the US has a moral obligation to deal with the mess it has made in Iraq.  This has come up more recently as an unfortunate byproduct of the popular message that Iraq is draining the US economy.  Senator Ben Nelson (D-NE) is aggressively pushing legislation to make any reconstruction payments for Iraq only as loans that they must pay back to the US. Even strongly antiwar senators like Barbara Boxer wanted Iraq to foot the bill for things like the US’s unsustainable program to essentially rent the tenuous support of Sunni “security volunteers.” At Peace Action West, we believe that part of a comprehensive plan to stabilize Iraq needs to include funding for reconstruction and humanitarian aid in Iraq.  And by reconstruction, I don’t mean irresponsible Blackwater employees and Kellogg, Brown and Root with their overpriced monogrammed towels.  The US has a responsibility, and a long-term security interest, in assisting Iraq financially in its Iraqi-run efforts to rebuild.

There will be more to come as Petraeus and Crocker come before the House committees today.  I will not be live blogging the hearings now that I know it could be hazardous to my health, but you can check out updates from our colleagues over at the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation.

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