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Petraeus Hearing: Deja Vu in the Senate

General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker found themselves in familiar territory yesterday when they sat before the Senate Armed Services and Senate Foreign Relations Committees to give an overview of what they see as the situation in Iraq.

Their appearance elicited eerie feelings of deja vu. Certainly many of the questions directed at the Petraeus and Crocker seemed to be carbon copies of ones asked by Congress last September. And Petraeus, in the same calm, commanding voice he used to such great effectiveness then, used many of the same words and phrases to describe Iraq today.

The situation is “improving” but is still “fragile” with “a reverse” possible unless we “maintain our force structure” and not draw down our troops “too precipitously.”

Next time, Petraeus could just write that on a postcard and mail it in.

Actually, the Petraeus and Crocker made a little news. General Petraeus is recommending against any further troop withdrawals beyond those scheduled to end in July. He wants a 45 day period of “consolidation and evaluation” before revisiting the idea of drawing down any more troops.

And here is where the fun began. Senator after senator from both sides of the aisle tried to pin Petraeus down on when we could expect troop reductions to begin again following this “pause.” It was like watching a grasshopper on a hot plate. Petraeus, with great verbal agility, leapt around the issue, giving the perfectly sensible answer 20 different ways: it depends on what we find after the pause.

But common sense and politicians are usually mutually exclusive bedfellows. Democrats used the opportunity to dig into their rhetorical repertoire of verbal barbs, trying to trap Petraeus into saying something that would reveal secret information — like Bush’s plan to keep the lid on Iraq, dumping the problem in the lap of the next president.

Republicans, meanwhile, were more interested in hearing how many troops there might be in Iraq in November. Not being much of a psychic, Petraeus couldn’t tell them. In case you’ve forgotten (the GOP hasn’t), there’s an election coming in November and the Republicans are desperate that those running for another term can show progress toward bringing the boys home. Petraeus offered them little in the way of hope, although he didn’t close the door entirely to further troop reductions prior to the election.

Another line of attack opened by Democrats was the recent performance of the Iraqi Army in the Basra campaign to take out criminal elements and militias who were infesting the city. Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin eventually pinned Petraeus against the wall, getting him to admit that the operation was ” inadequately planned and executed.” He said the Iraqi Army’s performance was a “disappointment,” but that it is not over yet as the Iraqis continue to carry out sweeps looking for criminals and weapons caches.

Unlike the hearings in September, it was Republicans on the defensive for the most part this time. The previous appearance by Petraeus was marked by the sliming of the general by Moveon.Org and their infamous “Betray-Us” ad. Unable to change the subject from what is happening in Iraq, Republicans found themselves unable to successfully answer the Democrats’ charges that the reason for the surge — to give the Iraqi government time to bring about political reconciliation — had not been fulfilled. While some Democrats grudgingly acknowledged the lower casualties and even the reconciliation taking place at the local level, their overall assessment was that the surge was a failure and that a timetable for withdrawal should be formulated.

Then there was “the show of shows” starring the three presidential candidates. All three acquitted themselves well, although McCain made a slight stumble when he referred to Al-Qaeda as a Shia sect. He immediately corrected himself, which is better than what Obama did when he made his little misstatement. He referred to the “Iraqi government” attacking American troops when he obviously meant the Iranians.

Hillary Clinton got through her Q&A session without any gaffes and managed to look reasonably presidential for her six minutes of face time. She raised a point about the Iraqi “Security Agreement” that seemed a little pedantic — that it should not “tie the hands of the next president” with regard to troop levels. Since Ambassador Crocker addressed that issue in his opening statement by saying that specific troop levels would not be included in the agreement, it seemed that Hillary was going out of her way to remind people that it would be her hands being tied in that case.

John McCain, whose candidacy is entirely dependent on whether we are seen as succeeding or failing in Iraq on election day, was understandably upbeat about the situation in Iraq, saying, “We’re no longer staring into the abyss of defeat and we can now look ahead to the genuine prospect of success.” Obviously, his Democratic counterparts would disagree. Anticipating their objections, McCain said ““the promise of withdrawal of our forces regardless of the consequences would constitute a failure of political and moral leadership.”

As for Barack Obama, he made an interesting statement that answered directly critics who believe that he and other anti-war Democrats want the US to fail in Iraq. “We all have the greatest interest in seeing a successful resolution to Iraq,” he forcefully stated. “All of us do.”

You don’t hear Democrats talking that way about Iraq very often. They are more inclined to brand Iraq a failure already than talk about searching for a “successful” outcome.

But Obama seemed skeptical about the involvement of Iran in forming its own “Special Groups” and militias. And his planned withdrawal was, he explained, necessary because by “applying increased pressure” to the Iraqi government, it would hasten reconciliation. Petraeus politely pointed out for the umpteenth time that reducing American troops too quickly would, in his opinion, lead to disaster.

I wonder if Petraeus will remain commander in Iraq if Obama is elected? Somehow, I doubt it.

All three candidates felt it necessary to break from their hectic schedules and show up for these hearings. None of them heard anything from the witnesses or other senators that changed their views one iota. In fact, they knew pretty much what Petraeus and Crocker were going to say anyway.

But the lure of a national cable audience plus the fear of giving their opponent an opening to exploit with regards to not attending a very important committee hearing proved too irresistible for the three candidates — one of whom will be Petraeus’s and Crocker’s boss on January 20, 2009

Rick Moran blogs at Right Wing Nut House.