I am sitting in a hotel room in Washington. The television is on in the background, because I’m hoping to catch more Congressional testimony from General David Petraeus. But even the mainstream news channels seem to be losing interest. They keep cutting away to other stuff – commemoration services for 9/11, Osama’s new video. All the news channels carried Petraeus live yesterday, when he testified before the House Foreign Affairs committees. Today, he and Ambassador Ryan Crocker are appearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which should be even more interesting – since his inquisitors include Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. But Petraeus fatigue has set in already.
It’s been a while since I watched hours of Congresssional testimony at a stretch. Yesterday was interesting, partly because it reminded me of the massive self-importance of Congress – neither Petraeus or Crocker got to say anything for almost an hour, while the committee members droned away. Their attitude seemed to be – "I’m really glad you’ve come all the way from Iraq, because there are a few things I’d like to get off my chest."
Petraeus says that the surge is working, which infuriates the anti-war crowd. But the people at Moveon.org scored an own goal, even before the general appeared before Congress, by publishing a full-page ad in the New York Times calling him "General Betray Us". This was so over-the-top that it was a gift to the Republicans.
Mind you, sotto voce, even some senior Republicans are not totally convinced by the general.
I met one yesterday who reminded me that Petraeus’s previous "achievements" include failing to secure thousands of weapons, which have now turned up all over Iraq, and presiding over the training of the Iraqi police in 2003-2004. The police force is now widely regarded as worse-than-useless.
Reaction to Petraeus’s testimony has been predictably partisan. The Wall Street Journal ran a leader, attacking those who dared attack the general (subscription required); the New York Times accused Petraeus of making "more excuses" and called for a faster withdrawal.
But as Andrew Ward and Demetri Sevastopulo pointed out in today’s FT, there is a sort of centrist consensus forming around the idea of a gradual troop withdrawal – without hard deadlines. This seems to me to be based on a paradoxical chain of reasoning, which goes something like this – "The surge is working. But the surge cannot be maintained. So the surge must end."
The big question – obviously – is, and then what? Petraeus’s claim that there has been a big decline in sectarian violence is disputed by some, including researchers at the much-respected Government Accountability Office. But even if one accepts the general’s reasoning, there must be a strong chance that violence will simply surge again, as the number of American troops is once again reduced.
And reductions there will be. The next big question is how fast the US is going to pull out. I think once they get going, the domestic pressure for big withdrawals will probably weigh more heavily than fears of the fall-out in Iraq itself. But plenty of people I’ve spoken to disagree. Last night I had dinner with five friends – a mixture of journalists and think-tankers. At one point, we were all asked how many US troops we thought would be in Iraq by the end of 2009. I said there would be just 15,000 left. But only one person around the table agreed. The consensus seemed to be around 100,000.
Tomorrow, I will return to the fray to discuss how the US is "defining down" the idea of success in Iraq, to prepare the ground for withdrawal.
Get alerts on World when a new story is published