- Campaigning by Committee
- "There's no change in mission"
The Washington Post goes completely nuts with its coverage today of the second day of the Iraq hearings, swarming all over Capitol Hill and practically having an Iraqasm. And while all of today's papers go big with the hearings -- they have to end sometime, right? -- they can't decide what's more interesting: what Gen. David H. Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker said (pretty much what they said yesterday) or that the senators used the panels to campaign, bloviate and show off (see Sen. Biden, Joe). No scoops, really, since today is a day for reflection, sober analysis and gossip about the how well the various presidential candidates comported themselves.
The Iraq Hearings, Day 2
Some things never change. Michael Abramowitz and Jonathan Weisman report for the Post that despite Petraeus's and Crocker's testimony yesterday, alongside proposed plans by Bush to order up to 30,000 troops home by next summer, Democrats and some Republicans lashed out and vowed to push for a more dramatic change in policy. What do these people want? An end to the war? Oh, right. People seem to be realizing that the proposal to "reduce" troop levels next year really just reflects logistical realities of the Pentagon and doesn't really offer any new ideas. It essentially resets the clock to January 2007, when Bush announced the surge plan. Bush plans to address the nation Thursday night to announce the troop plan. But he also plans to say that this is because of the success on the ground, not because anyone forced him to do it. The second day of testimony for the general and the diplomat was rougher than yesterday's. That's because the two men faced the Senate -- and five presidential candidates, report the Post's Dan Balz and Shailagh Murray. Sens. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., Barack Obama, D-Ill., Chris Dodd, D-Conn., Joe Biden, D-Del., and John McCain, R-Ariz., will likely be the next president and it will fall to them to "fix" Iraq. And the candidates used the hearings to sharpen their message, probe the general and diplomat and distinguish themselves from one another. Biden, naturally, delivered a 15-minute introductory statement detailing how smart he is.
The New York Times's David E. Sanger pens the paper's lead story, reporting that Crocker and Petraeus conceded that the Bush strategy would remain largely unchanged, even as the surge ends. The U.S. will need a major troop presence for years to come. This is the real news of the day. Democrats are reacting angrily to this idea, calling it an undefined, long-term presence that would shock the American people.
Disappointed with testimony that promises more of the same, some key Republicans have decided that after waiting for Petraeus, they're ready for a new strategy, report Carl Hulse and David Herszenhorn for the Times. Moderate Republicans are upset over the return to the status quo ante and want a shift in mission.
Somewhat anticlimactically, David Jackson and Kathy Kiely report for USA Today that amid all the hoopla, Bush will endorse the pullback plan on Thursday night.
The Post's Karen DeYoung pens an analysis of Crocker's Senate testimony, noting that it's pretty thin stuff. Maybe the Iraqi government will reconcile, and maybe it won't. (Aren't these guys paid to actually know this stuff?) Crocker said while the U.S. was pushing the Iraqis, it will take more time. A far cry from "Mission Accomplished," I guess. Crocker worked hard to lower expectations on Iraq, saying small changes were in the air -- some clerics are talking to each other again, for example -- but "I think in the past we have set some expectations that simply couldn't be met."
Elizabeth Williamson of, again, the Post writes miniprofiles of two representatives who have changed their minds on the war: Brian Baird, D-Wash., and James T. Walsh, R-N.Y. Baird was an ardent war opponent until he went over and talked to Petraeus et al., while Walsh supported the war. They have since changed each of their positions, producing exactly no change in the pro- and anti-war balance in the House.
Howard LaFranchi has the story for the Christian Science Monitor, but goes to good analysts who looked ahead and examined Petraeus' data. "What (Petraeus and Crocker) made the case for is more squabbling," says Wayne White, an adjunct scholar with the Middle East Institute in Washington and former State Department Iraq expert. "There was enough there if you're not a skeptic to bolster the view that progress is being made. But if you are, you just might have come away with the feeling that we're being snookered." Petraeus' data covers up the continuing violence and the ethno-sectarian cleansing in Baghdad's neighborhoods, he said. And it doesn't recognize that the U.S. helping the Sunnis doesn't help with reconciliation with the Shi'ite government.
And finally, 9/11. Peter Baker writes a front-pager for the Post on the connection of Iraq to the attacks. No, not the fictitious connection many still try to make, but the real one to the current politics surrounding the war. Tuesday was the sixth anniversary of the attacks, and the second day of the hearings on Iraq. It was impossible to separate the two sometimes, and the White House has done little to try. An ad campaign run by former White House advisors says "They attacked us" and urges the country to stay in Iraq.
The reason to emphasize al-Qaeda, aides said, is simple. "People know what that means," said one senior official who spoke about internal strategy on the condition of anonymity. "The average person doesn't understand why the Sunnis and Shi'a don't like each other. They don't know where the Kurds live. ... And al-Qaeda is something they know. They're the enemy of the United States."One of the guys behind the ads is Ari Fleischer, the former press secretary for Bush in the run-up to the war. (He helped sell the Iraq war in the first place.) And while he admits that Iraq did not attack the United States six years ago, 9/11 is still "a bona fide, legitimate reason to remind people what's at stake."
Campaigning by Committee Dana Milbank of the Post delves deeply into the Kremlinology of Senate presidential candidates and yesterday's hearings, analyzing Obama politicking, Biden (who read a newspaper during Obama's questions), Clinton's advantageous photo op and Dodd's aggressive press release. It was the lack of new testimony -- Petraeus re-read, almost word for word, his House testimony from Monday -- that allowed the Senators to talk about themselves so much. But at least when they did talk to the general and diplomat, the questions were tougher. Sen. Richard G. Lugar, R-Ind., said: "it is not enough for the administration to counsel patience until the next milestone or the next report." And it was left to retiring John W. Warner, R-Va., to have this striking exchange with Petraeus:
"If we continue what you have laid before the Congress here as a strategy, do you feel that that is making America safer?"
"Sir, I believe that this is indeed the best course of action to achieve our objectives in Iraq," Petraeus replied.
"Does that make America safer?" Warner pressed.
"Sir," the general said. "I don't know."
Kathy Kiely of USA Today reports that yesterday's hearings put Petraeus and Crocker in front of five celebrated talkers for 10 hours -- with only two bathroom breaks and less than 30 minutes for lunch. "Baghdad's never looked so good," quipped Crocker to a question as to whether he was ready to get back to work.
Elisabeth Bumiller of The New York Times reports that the five candidates all zeroed in on one fact in the hearing: one of them likely will inherit Iraq. Democrats focused on the 30,000-troop drawdown, and wanted to know what's next: "If we're there at the same place a year from now, can you please describe for me any circumstances in which you would make a different recommendation and suggest it is now time for us to start withdrawing our troops?" Obama asked. "Any scenario? Any set of benchmarks?"
Neil King Jr. and Greg Jaffe report for the Wall Street Journal that now the debate over Iraq moves out of hearing chamber and onto the presidential trail. The pair lay out the various positionings of the presidential hopefuls, but with public hearings, there's not much different here than the other papers have.
Alessandra Stanley reports on the showiness of the hearings for the Senators for the Times, noting that Biden was the most "agile" at slipping in references to all his trips to Iraq. He managed to work in six references in one hearing. The papers managed six stories on presidential gossip.
Joshua Partlow writes from Baghdad for the Post that the deceptive calm in the streets masks a great deal of fear. Bombed out restaurants are repaired, but there are no customers after dark. In short, the Iraqis' assessment of the surge and it's alleged success vary from Petraeus' and Crocker's. But, Partlow writes, "If there was any pattern to the responses, it was a street-level disregard for the optimism of officials in Washington and Baghdad." It was left to Mowaffak al-Rubaie, Iraq's national security advisor, to give the Iraqi government's response. As you might expect, things are great, with
"spectacular progress in reconciling the differences among our citizens" and the development of the "formidable" Iraqi security forces to the point that "80 percent of our army has reached a level of competence and readiness." He said that in the "near term," the Iraqi government expects a "relaxation of the requirements for Coalition forces in direct combat operations."Other Iraqis were more tempered, with one lawmaker from Fallujah saying the success was "relative." There is anger at the American presence, but a feeling that only they can prevent the killing from spiraling out of control.
The Times' Alissa J. Rubin echoes the Iraqis' confusion over the U.S. presence, writing her take on Iraqis' reaction to the last two days of hearings. But in 20 interviews across the political and religious spectrum, she said Iraqis mainly favored Petraeus' report to Congress, because they said it was accurate, but that it also meant nothing much would change. A city employee in Baqoubah summed it up nicely:
"The withdrawal of the occupation forces is a must because they have caused the destruction of Iraq, they committed massacres against the innocents, they have double-crossed the Iraqis with dreams," said the worker, Ahmad Umar al Esawi, a Sunni. "I want them to withdraw all their troops in one day."
Dropping his voice, he continued: "There is something that I want to say although I hate to say it. The American forces, which are an ugly occupation force, have become something important to us, the Sunnis. We are a minority and we do not have a force to face the militias. If the Americans leave, it will mean a total elimination of the Sunnis in Iraq."
Less politically, James Glanz and Denise Grady report for the Times that a cholera epidemic has hit northern Iraq, infecting 7,000 people, and could reach Baghdad in weeks as the disease works its way through the country's water system. The disease is concentrated around Kirkuk and Suleimaniya, and 10 people are known to have died. It's important to contain the epidemic in the north because security conditions there are better. If it spreads south, it will be too dangerous to send health workers out to deal with it.
Gordon Lubold of the Monitor takes a gander at Anbar and examines it as Exhibit A of the surge's success. Verdict: Things are much better, but very fragile.
Peter Slevin of the Post goes out into the heartland of Manhattan, Kan., near Fort Riley, home of the 1st Infantry Division, to find conflicted emotions over the war as casualties mount. OK. We get it. People have mixed feelings. Sure, this is an evergreen story pegged to whatever momentous development is happening in Washington or Baghdad, but is there a way to do these stories without resorting to "Even here Bush is no longer well liked and the war is an issue" kind of locutions? That people in Bush country don't like the war and don't trust Bush to prosecute it is no longer news.
Paul Vitello of the Times at least avoids the heartland and goes to Petraeus' hometown to write about local reaction to the general's testimony. People in Conwall-on-Hudson, N.Y., pop. 3,058, are worried about the war, but hopeful that Petraeus is smart enough to win it. The best scoop? That Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander Multinational Forces-Iraq, was nicknamed "Peaches" in high school.
IN OTHER COVERAGE
Christian Science Monitor
The Monitor runs a largely approving editorial saying that the Washington Clock, which looked like it was running out, has probably just been reset to 2009 and beyond.
New York Times
Maureen Dowd pens an op-ed saying that the testimonies are a fizzle, that there's no new plan, that the strategy is to wait out the Bush presidency hoping that something awesome will happen in Iraq.
Thomas L. Freidman is so tired of Iraq that he went to China, where no one talks about it. But he does, and repeats his newfound calls for withdrawal plans, because China is not wasting its energy in Iraq. America is.
Wall Street Journal
Owen West, a trader at Goldman Sachs, a director of the Marine Corps Scholarship Foundation and a two-tour Marine veteran of Iraq, writes of the growing divide between the military culture and the civilian one. Being the Journal, the Democrats get the worst of op-ed..
A Journal editorial criticizes all the major newspapers (including, it would seem, the Journal) for not repeating Crocker's and Petraeus' moderately upbeat assessments of Iraq word for word. This is a tiresome repeat of the "Why don't you report the Good News" in Iraq litany that we heard from 2003-2006. But it goes even farther than usual by saying the good news and progress has bought time and space for Bush in the American political realm. So he needs to attack Iran and Syria. Yeah, since Iraq is working out so well after four-and-a-half years.
Michael Gerson, op-ed columnist and former chief speechwriter for Bush, bemoans the criticism of Petraeus by Democrats and MoveOn.org, and says the criticism will lead to the U.S.'s defeat in Iraq. "If he is slandered, his advice is dismissed and Congress cuts off funding for the troops he commands, defeat in Iraq will be certain," he writes. Oh, dear. However, no one is seriously talking about cutting off funding for troops, and I don't think calling a general names will lead to American defeat. As for his advice, he might be wrong and it might need to be dismissed. He was wrong before, in 2004, after all.