Tuesday, April 8, 2008

"The Surge" Hearing

I've been watching the MSNBC coverage of the Petraeus/Crocker hearings before Congress all day, often wishing someone would say something tangible or constructive. I'd like to deal with the things I've heard today, piece by piece. I don't want this to be another 2008 election post, despite the obvious overtones with all 3 candidates addressing the panel. I will start, briefly, with that point to get it out of the way.

The question I was hoping to hear from any or all of the candidates (or any of the other Senators) was, "What is the minimum requirement to declare victory in Iraq that will allow us to bring our troops home?" I'd heard all the prepared statements from Petraeus and Crocker and found them seriously lacking in detail or vision. They were very careful and non-committal, generally preferring a combination of status quo rhetoric and ambiguous progress which may or may not continue in the future. Essentially, they said, "The conditions dictate our next move, and we don't know what those conditions will be at any point in the future despite optimism about recent progress."

John McCain, to use a baseball analogy, drew a walk in his inquiry. He didn't take a swing with any real questions, preferring to highlight the party line on successful benchmarks on the ground. He said more or less the same thing he's been saying on the campaign trail and while he didn't hurt himself with any ridiculous new projections about Iraq, he also never took the bat off his shoulder to get answers for us, the American people. He took his base, and passed the rest of the inning along to his Committee on Armed Service teammates.

Hillary Clinton hit a ringing double with her command of the facts, pointed questioning, and her insistence that the U.S. Congress holds the right to ratify a treaty with the Iraqi government, not the other way around. I think she missed the opportunity to ask more questions as a result of her rather long opening statement, but the tone was very very strong.

Before I get to Barack Obama, I'd like to say that I think the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, overall, was FAR superior in their tough questioning of the two guests than their Armed Service colleagues. The Democrats on the Committee on Armed Service panel allowed Petraeus to repeat his prepared statement talking points over and over and allowed Ambassador Crocker to drone on in a filibuster-like waste of valuable questioning time. The Republicans kissed their asses on a number of occasions, never asking a single productive question about where the Occupation ends.

Barack Obama was fortunate to make his questioning near the end of the Foreign Service business, after Senators from both parties had tenderized the Bush administration's front men with tough, pointed questions about the loss of life, treasure, and focus in the Middle East and on the larger battle with Islamic extremists. The Committee managed to keep the pressure on regarding our finite resources, patience, and military personnel. Obama hit a solo home run, by following a rather powerful and heated Barbara Boxer and a fairly bland George Voinovich with an almost professorial examination of the duo before him. He started slow with a bit of a wordy opening question that never materialized as clearly as he wanted, but evolved into a productive, respectful, and logical dialog. He occasionally interrupted the panelists when their answers strayed from his point, but did so with a respectful and dignified tone that kept the pair open to his line of questioning. I'm biased in Senator Obama's favor, but he asked the question that I wanted to hear. He asked about whether a messy status quo would be an acceptable outcome for the United States, especially in light of the uber-high bar the administration seems to be setting to define success. That was close enough for me, as it gets right at the heart of my own question, and far more effectively.

There was never an answer to that question that seemed remotely acceptable. We have lost 4, 024 American soldiers since the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians, if not more, have been killed. We have spent trillions of dollars. We have diverted attention and resources from Afghanistan and Al Qaeda. We have allowed Al Qaeda and Iran to create footholds in Iraq where they did not exist before. We stand by and allow the political stalemate in the Iraqi government dictate the tenure of our military presence. What little progress they make in the effort for reconciliation and an end to sectarian violence is offset by the corruption, bad blood, and lack of commitment to a real Iraqi state. 1,000 Iraqi soldiers went AWOL in the recent battles in Basra, refusing to fight. News reports show US inspections of Iraqi units which find them taking long lunches and sleeping on the job. There has been almost no progress on restoring electricity, water, sewage, or other important basic services, while money has gone missing at an alarming rate. The list goes on and on.

The people that needed to be seated before Congress to take the heat for this situation, or explain it to all of us, are Secretary of State Condeleeza Rice and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. Those are the people responsible for the policy in Iraq. They need to address military and diplomatic goalposts for success. Could they sit there are answer the question that I wanted to ask, and that Senator Obama posed so eloquently. Senator Robert Menendez put it very well when he said something to the effect of, "You can't tell us what the end game is for success. It's almost like you're saying, we'll know it when we see it and give us an open checkbook in the meantime."

In the end, we never heard anything resembling a decent answer about where this thing goes from here. I've said in the past that I don't want a precipitous and risky withdrawal that leaves a power void to be filled by Iran, Al Qaeda, Moqtada al Sadr, militias, criminals, or civil war. I do want a reasonable withdrawal starting ASAP that indicates that Iraq needs to stand on its own sooner than later. It needs to resolve the unresolved with some measure of urgency and seriousness. A messy status quo looks good to me, as long as we stand prepared with an international coalition to provide some air cover for the Iraqi military and/or some logistic support in the area of intelligence and reconnaissance. We need to reject the idea of a long term presence in Iraq because it will be unproductive for them and for us. It will put a tremendous drag on our economy and promote ill will with the Arab and Muslim community that already sees us as imperial occupiers.

The upcoming election will determine everything about the way we move forward, and I think either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama have a good command of our realistic options for the future of the Occupation and our presence in the region. John McCain? Not so much.


mike's spot said...

You say you don't want a power void, but you want us to start leaving now. As for the checkbook- as long as our soldiers are there- it should be open- and wide. Cutting funding to the war- the democrat party solution, does nothing but make a better environment for our soldiers to get killed.

You want us out now? accept there will be a void, and iraqis will die. We went in- its our mess, we owe those who died the decency to do our best to fix it. should they have an actual answer and planned results? absolutely. But leaving in a hurry or 'asap' while cutting funding does nothing but breed a killing field.

Mike Plugh said...

No one ever said anything about cutting funding Mike. That's a Right Wing talking point that has bounced around the echo chamber without an ounce of reality associated with it.

The notion that the American people, faced with a recession, should continue to keep an open checkbook to support an Occupation with no end in sight, no reasonable benchmark for success, and no military or political objectives apparent to anyone on Earth is ridiculous.

The false choice of abandoning the troops or continuing the fight has to end. The choices are numerous and must all be considered before settling on continuing the ineffectual policies of the Bush administration.

Not a single Democrat or Republican is advocating cutting funding. Not one. Iraqis are going to die. A lot of them. That's true whether we stay for 100 years, until we finally get it right, or we leave tomorrow. Nothing is going to change that. The consequences of this gigantic blunder will be felt by Americans, Iraqis, and people all over the world for at least a generation. The ripple effects of our aggression have lasting effects.

The solution is:

1. Set a minimum bar for success and stick to it.

2. Begin a phased withdrawal of our overextended and psychologically taxed servicepeople so they can recoup, retire, retrain, or get the help they need to deal with their trauma.

3. Begin to reorganize our resources to economically and militarily focus on the real war, the war on terror, that is being forgotten for this lie that is Iraq.

4. Enlist the diplomatic and military aid of Iraq's neighbors and the UN to provide air and logistical support for the Iraqi Armed Forces.

5. Put together a serious coalition of international agencies to rebuild the Iraqi infrastructure while sharing the financial burden with a wider field of parties.

6. Repair the damage this war and occupation have done in the region by opening a dialog with the Arab League aimed at regional security for American interests, tied to humanitarian interests and the modernization of nations lagging in the global arena.

We HAVE TO stop living by these false choices. We HAVE TO start having a comprehensive dialog about what success in Iraq means in a very concrete and well defined way. We HAVE TO get to the point where we trust the Iraqis to sink or swim on their own. Whatever form of government and sectarian dynamic emerge will emerge whether we stay 2 more years, 20 more years, or 200 more years.

The only thing we get for our continued presence and the status quo is a weaker military, a greater vulnerability to a stronger Al Qaeda, a deeper recession, $5/gallon gasoline prices, and dead brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, sons and daughters. Getting out sooner than later can be accompanied by a sound, reasonable plan. That's more that we have right now staying in indefinitely.

V Cubed said...

mike plugh, agreed, can't say it any better. I can only add that Hillary's words don't match her list of donors, lobbyists and campaign advisors, and that's why I'm for the Senator [Obama] on the Foreign Relation and Veterans Affairs committees, not the Senator [Clinton] on Armed Forces Appropriations - the trough, for pork.

Follow the money, then ponder: who will get us out faster with the most diplomacy and the least profiteering arms, equipment, contractor deals?

Mike Plugh said...

Thanks V.

Following the money is a depressing task. If more people did it, real change would be on the agenda.

yankz said...

Dude, mike plugh, what a tiny world!

-yankz from BB

Mike Plugh said...

Hey yankz!! Bet you didn't know I wrote about politics, did you?

yankz said...

I didn't, and I must say, I completely agree with your views and your choice of candidate. Keep up the great work.

I always freak out when I e-run into someone I already e-know.

Mike Plugh said...

Hah. Small e-world isn't it?

workshop said...

I don't think there is anything whatsoever that is positive about Obama being professorial and 'respectful'. I think that kind of comity has long been misplaced and it implies a legitimacy to the policies being questioned that has not been there since day one.

It was an illegal invasion, based on lied, and the longer it continues in the form of an occupation that is understandably unpopular both in Iraq and in the US, the worse the situation gets.

Anything else is bullshit and should be treated as such. Had the Dems stopped the comity crap long ago and called bullshit bullshit, this situation in Iraq would have ended long ago.

Obama's "cleanness", his way of staying above the fray, of avoiding the mud, is not in his favor. A vile policy cannot be discussed with comity and "respect".

workshop said...

Re. power void: there's no power void. Sadr and Sistani together have the makings of a ruling party, with the Sunnis and Kurds as minority parties.

Nor is there any reason to think that Sadr and Sistani will pursue a civil war against the Sunnis, unless the Sunnis start one.

Mike Plugh said...


Politics occurs in layers, sometimes subtle and imperceptible layers. The questioning at these panels isn't intended to be Jack Nicholson on the stand in "A Few Good Men." It's intended to document a trail of events and the justification for those events in an effort to hold our government accountable for its actions. You don't make a case for action or inaction by clubbing them over the heads, shouting "I want the truth!!", or starting a pissing match over the facts.

What happened today was:

1. Petraeus and Crocker were forced to stand in front of cameras and justify our continued presence in Iraq and the money and lives that are being spent.
2. Our elected officials were forced to align themselves publicly with a plan.
3. Each side put its case out to the MSM to frame and present to the voting public who supposedly make the decisions about what agenda wins out.

You may not like what you saw, but the process is a marathon of public opinion shaping that begins behind the scenes, plays out on the stage of the national media, and manifests in the ballot box. Each Senator provided a line of questioning that pushes the national discourse in a particular direction. Regardless of what you think about Barack Obama as a person, a presidential candidate, or a senator, he has been extremely effective in his ability to use rhetoric to shape the national discourse.

mike's spot said...

I don't know mike- Maybe I just can't wrap my brain around the greater issue.

You say no open checkbook, but no reduction in funding. I stated we need to determine a list of results. I agreed totally on that point.

I don't foresee any useful response from the UN in time to assist the people of Iraq. Color me pessimistic, but the UN's track record doesn't really impress me concerning their ability to help war torn nations.

I guess we'll see how it shakes out.

good points plugh

capt said...

I think the larger point is - we can't stay just because we messed the place up.

If Maliki doesn't have the support of the people in Iraq we and perpetuating a fraud not spreading democracy.

We "won" the war long ago - the occupation will end and those that want us to leave will always be able to declare victory. That is the flawed nature of an occupation.

If five years isn't enough to get things in order, what do we expect in seven, ten or fifty years?

Since the start of the "surge" we have lost 900 troops and here we are right back where we were before the surge.

Someone should have asked Pretreaus to explain what those lives have bought us other than more time for the coward from Crawford to slink back under the rock from where he came.

mike's spot said...

I believe the surge did help create a safer environment for our soldiers. If they have to be there anyway until we figure out what we are going to do- then I want them to have all the resources necessary to do so with the greatest caution we can muster.