Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Playing for time

“To believe that Americans, with an occupying force that long ago outlived its reluctant welcome, can win over a recalcitrant local population and win this counterinsurgency is far-fetched.”

So wrote a group of seven American soldiers in an op-ed piece for The New York Times in August. And Monday, the day Gen. David Petraeus started testifying before a congressional panel on the progress of the war in Iraq, Sgt. Omar Mora and Sgt. Yance T. Gray, two of the author soldiers, were killed in a vehicle accident in western Baghdad.

If, in the words of Colin Powell, “perpetual optimism is a force multiplier,” then collective skepticism can have the opposite effect on a nation’s armed forces at war, particularly when two of those skeptics, comrades in arms in defense of America, die at the hands of the war they condemn.

Gen. Petraeus, author of the long-awaited report that bears his name testified Monday and today at a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and, protestations of his independence as the report’s sole creator notwithstanding, essentially parroted the Bush administration line about maintaining a U.S. military presence in Iraq.

There were two departures from the usual, one was well planned in advance, but the other was so totally unexpected that it threatens to cast a pall over the morale of the 169,000 brave but bloodied souls who wear the U.S. uniform.

Petraeus, testifying alongside U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker, more or less confirmed something already expected: a cut in troop strength in Iraq.

“I have recommended a drawdown of the surge forces from Iraq,” the general said in his prepared remarks. “… Beyond that,” he said, those departures “will be followed by the withdrawal of a brigade combat team without replacement in mid-December and the further redeployment without replacement of four other brigade combat teams and the two surge Marine battalions in the first seven months of 2008, until we reach the pre-surge level of 15 brigade combat teams by mid-July 2008.

The total comes to about 30,000 forces, give or take – a number that, again, give or take, reduces U.S. troop strength to about what it was before the storied “surge” – a fact that failed to mollify Democrats, or Republicans on the committee.

Petraeus went on to paint an early-departure Chicken Little scenario almost too dire for words. If the United States was to leave in greater numbers too soon, he testified, “rapid withdrawal would result in the further release of the strong centrifugal forces in Iraq and produce a number of dangerous results, including a high risk of disintegration of the Iraqi Security Forces; rapid deterioration of local security initiatives; al-Qaida-Iraq regaining lost ground and freedom of maneuver; a marked increase in violence and further ethno-sectarian displacement and refugee flows … “

One was tempted to inquire about the plague of locusts that is sure to follow.

A tag-team interrogation was shortly underway. There were the usual suspects – Democratic Sens. Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and Chris Dodd, shoring up their bona fides for the 2008 presidential campaign by alternately questioning Petraeus and offering their own soundbite pronunciamentos. But there was no party-line water’s edge to the intensity of questioning. Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel, set to retire next year, got downright medieval on Petraeus and Crocker.

"Are we going to continue to invest blood and treasure at the same rate we're doing now? For what?" asked Hagel, the refreshingly honest Nebraska Republican who’s been a boil on the administration’s ass for years over the war in Iraq. Hagel wants legislation that would set a deadline to bring U.S. troops home.

Norm Coleman weighed in. The Minnesota Republican said he wanted a longer long-term commitment to return troops home, and a sturdier vision of what’s possible whern Petraeus and Crocker come back to Capitol Hill in March.

“Americans want to see light at the end of the tunnel,” Coleman said (maybe not recognizing the perfect rejoinder to Robert Lowell’s poem lamenting that “If we see light at the end of the tunnel, It’s the light of the oncoming train”).

But it came down to Republican Sen. John Warner, a lion of the Senate who is due himself to resign from political life, to put everything in perspective.

Point blank, Warner asked Petraeus the best, most pertinent question of the hearing: "Are you able to say at this time, if we continue what you have laid before the Congress here as a strategy, do you feel that that is making America safer?"

"I believe that this is indeed the, uh, best course of action to achieve our objectives in Iraq," Petraeus said.

Warner repeated his question: "Does that make America safer?"

Petraeus answered.

"Sir, I don't know, actually. … I have not sat down and sorted out in my own mind, what I have focused on and been riveted on is how to accomplish the mission . … I have tried to focus on what I think a commander is supposed to do, which is to determine the best recommendations to achieve the objectives of the policy for which his mission is desired."

That stunning admission from a leader of men, an unquestioned patriot, is already dominating the evening news shows, and the Warner-Petraeus soundbite will probably show up in the news here and there for months to come. It should come as no surprise: When the commander of a major multinational force can’t summon the enthusiasm necessary to unequivocally endorse the mission before that force, it tends to arouse suspicion – that collective skepticism mentioned earlier – among the troops prosecuting that war. When the man at the top has his doubts, as Petraeus clearly does, how gung-ho can the forces under his command be expected to be?

What was equally stunning was the speed at which the White House spin cycle kicked in. Party operatives and analysts more or less immediately declared this a win for the administration, saying the administration had all along planned to endorse the Petraeus proposal of troop reduction – a cut in forces that would take the U.S. presence in Iraq about back to where it was before the escalation (“surge”) started. Much was made of an over-the-top ad by MoveOn.org that used a stupid play on words to impugn the general's fidelity to his country.

Petraeus’ assessment seemed to be a clear-eyed appraisal offered by a man of deep humility and love of country. But what was also true was that, Petraeus’ testimony – rendered in a personal style of delivery that owed as much to Gary Cooper as to John Wayne – revealed a basic lack of the leadership’s confidence. When Petraeus couldn’t answer a question fundamental to the reason our forces are over there – does this make us safer? – it distilled, cleanly and plainly, the ambivalence of at least some of the U.S. military leadership – and no doubt the ambivalence of grunts in the field … the foot soldiers … like Omar Mora and Yance T. Gray. No amount of White House spin can change that.

The next chapter in this drama takes place on Thursday, when President Bush goes before the nation to formally announce the Petraeus troop reductions. But what’s clear is use of an old strategy, a variation on the bunker strategy that’s dogged other administrations before.

The Nazi Holocaust survivor Fania Fenelon wrote a book of memoirs recalling her experiences as a musician in a concentration camp during World War II. The book, “Playing for Time,” explores how she and other musically gifted prisoners perfected their musicianship, under threat of death. A line from the Arthur Miller play of Fenelon’s book is memorable: “If we fall below a certain level, anything is possible.”

Not to overstretch the association, but the Bush White House is similarly playing for time, hoping to hold the line on an already uncontrollable situation with token troop cuts and insistence on following through on the present course of action – apparently believing that, if support for that present course falls below a certain level, anything disastrous is possible.

Steady as she goes: Skipper Bush goes on the air Thursday to announce the latest headings according to his compass, a device that has always insisted on its own magnetic north.

Does this make us safer? The general sent to fight that war doesn't know, actually. Maybe the politician will.

1 comment:

  1. Very well thought out views on a situation that has been talked about to death. I'd be interested to hear what John Edwards is going to say tonight after the President's speech.

    Apparently Giuliani is planning a rebuttal ad to moveon.org defending Petraeus and attacking Hillary Clinton: https://www.joinrudy2008.com/contribute/index/times (click on view entire ad, this is the donation page).

    I have to say, an election has never been this interesting before...


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