There are many things to say about today’s Senate testimonies of General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker. But what has struck me, so far, are the following.
The first is that in Petraeus and Crocker you see two men who embody excellence, a wonderful thing to see in any field of human endeavor. It’s especially comforting to find it in a place as important and fragile as Iraq. General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker are informed, careful, candid, and wholly in command. They have a complicated story to tell–and they tell it very, very well.
The second thing I noticed was how respectful and strong Petraeus and Crocker are. Senator Bayh (D-Indiana), for example, asked a question whose purpose was to get General Petraeus to say that those who disagree with Petraeus’ strategy are just as patriotic as those who agree with his strategy. General Petraeus made the right and obvious rejoinder: one of the reasons we fight for freedom is to allow people to hold different opinions. But he also made a powerful case that (these are my words, not his) not all opinions are equally valid or informed – and that the wrong opinions, animating wrong decisions, can have terrible consequences.
The third thing that jumped out at me is the vast ignorance of many Senators. For example, Senator McCaskill (D-Missouri) appears wed to a particular (defeatist) narrative regarding Basra: it was, she insisted, a terrible loss for Prime Minister Maliki, a big win for Muqtada al-Sadr, and evidence that the Iraq project is falling apart.
Ambassador Crocker patiently explained why this interpretation is wrong. He pointed out that there is actually fairly widespread support throughout Iraq for Maliki’s efforts, that there is a strong popular reaction against Shia militias, and that Sadr appears to be putting some distance between himself and elements of the Jaish al Mahdi (JAM) militia. These are all important data points.
General Petraeus made many of the same observations in response to previous questions. He pointed out that planning of the Basra operation left a lot to be desired–but that the Iraqi government’s willingness to take the battle to the enemy was encouraging. He acknowledged the troubling defections we saw within the ranks of the Iraqis–and told about the very impressive and heartening conduct of most of the ISF. Things are still playing out in Basra–but some of the early stumbles seem to have been corrected, adjustments are being made, and things are better now than they were. This is, in some ways, the story of Iraq writ large.
What we’re getting, and not only from Senators critical of the war, is posturing. Many Senators appear far more interested in making speeches than they do in asking pertinent questions. Iraq is a fluid situation–yet so many political figures have made up their mind. They act as if things are frozen in amber, as if a snapshot in time is a permanent state of things. And they seem wholly uninterested in increasing their understanding of the facts on the ground–especially if the facts on the ground demonstrate progress. Petraeus and Crocker, at least, are nuanced and knowledgeable. Which is, unfortunately, something rarely found on the Senate Armed Services Committee.