Little Engine That Could

Thus spoke General Petraeus

"I think I can, just need more time"

The oracles of Iraq finally came to town and — surprise, surprise — said exactly what everyone knew they would say. General David H Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker endured two long days on Capitol Hill retelling the story of The Little Engine That Could. Burdened with the task of righting the train-wreck of Bush's war in Iraq, they sought to reassure us one and all that they see light at the end of the tunnel, although, to their considerable credit, they eschewed that ignominious phrase.

• General Petraeus: We're making progress, we're making progress, we're making progress

• Ambassador Crocker: They're trying, I see signs they're trying ... I think

Well, what else did anyone expect them to say: "It's hopeless, let's get outta there"? The military epitomizes the "can-do" attitude, trained to never quit. The diplomatic corps epitomizes the Über-optimist, always looking for the slightest nuance that may suggest agreement. The general and the ambassador are, by all accounts, the top of their profession.

Petraeus ad in NYTimes ad in the New York Times (Click image to see the full ad, PDF) tried to be helpful by pointing out the general's tendency to see through rose-colored glasses, but they did it with a scurrilous full-page ad in the New York Times that simply provided a prop for Bush loyalists to brandish and condemn, not only but also the Democratic party by association. Alas, they repeated the mistake many of us made in the Vietnam era of failing to distinguish between a disastrous policy and those trying dutifully to carry it out.

The first to try to exploit the ad was Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL). After the second time, however, she was called out by a Democratic colleague.

ROS-LEHTINEN: And, again, I offer my colleagues the opportunity to use this hearing to distance themselves from the despicable ad that was published today calling into question the patriotism of General Petraeus.

NEAL ABERCROMBIE (D-HI): "Point of order, Mr. Chairman. Nobody has to distance themselves from something they weren't associated with."

Petraeus testifying

Although most of the House members in the joint Foreign Affairs/Armed Services committee hearing were clearly in a state of shock and awe, intimidated by the panoply of medals and brass sitting before them, many of the Senators, both Democratic and Republican, asked good, tough questions.

SEN CHUCK HAGEL (R-NE): Now, where is this going? ....

Are we going to continue to invest American blood and treasure at the same rate we are doing now, for what? The president said let's buy time. Buy time? For what?

SEN JOE BIDEN (D-DL): Is it not true that the fundamental purpose of the surge, the primary purpose, a political settlement, has not been met at this point?

CROCKER: Sir, clearly, we do not have a national-level political settlement. It also, I think, is in no way reasonable to expect that a surge that reached its full strength just in the middle of June...

BIDEN: Well, that's what you asserted, though. The administration asserted that's what they'd need.

SEN LINDSEY GRAHAM (R-SC): It's highly likely that a year from now we're going to have at least 100,000 troops in Iraq?

PETRAEUS: That is probably the case. Yes, sir.

GRAHAM: How many people are we losing a month, on average, since the surge began, in terms of killed in action?

PETRAEUS: Killed in action is probably in the neighborhood of 60 to 90.

GRAHAM: We're spending $9 billion a month to stay in Iraq.... So you're saying to the Congress that you know that at least 60 soldiers, airmen and Marines are likely to be killed every month from now to July, that we're going to spend $9 billion a month of American taxpayer dollars, and when it's all said and done, we'll still have 100,000 people there. You believe it's worth it in terms of our national security interests to pay that price?

SEN. JOHN SUNUNU (R-NH): But there is a simple concern. There probably many concerns. But a simple concern is: What happens when we leave? How do we ensure that local progress on politics, local progress on reconstruction, local progress on recruiting police officers is sustained?

And I would like you to describe in your mind what you think the specific institutions, resources, or additional steps are that will be required if that progress, at the local level, is going to be sustained once these withdrawals are completed?

SEN. ROBERT MENENDEZ (D-NJ): General Petraeus, you say, in your testimony, The fundamental source of the conflict in Iraq is competition among ethnic and sectarian communities for power and resources. This competition will, your emphasis, Will take place and its resolution is key to producing long-term stability in the new Iraq.

So, we have the sons and daughters of America dying for Iraqis to compete over power and resources instead of trying to establish a nation.

PETRAEUS: Actually, Senator, our mission is to try to help what is an inevitable competition. I have tried to describe this as accurately as I could, of a sectarian competition.

MENENDEZ: And I appreciate it..... But, at the core of it, is what we're doing is trying to referee, with the lives of Americans, a competition for power and resources, not for building a nation.

SEN LISA MURKOWSKI (R-AK): Is this a change in strategy? Is this a mission shift? ... This sounds very much, sounds identical, to what President Bush has been saying all along...

In a statement issued after the hearings, Murkowski was more blunt: "I am concerned, however, that we are becoming mired in an approval cycle without significant demonstrable signs of progress toward political reconciliation on the part of the Iraqi Government. It appears that the way forward is still, as the President has put it, 'stand down when the Iraqis stand up'. Without progress on the political front, it will not be possible for the Iraqis to stand up."

SEN RUSS FEINGOLD (D-WI): But go ahead and please answer the question: When can we expect the troop deaths to decline in Iraq?

PETRAEUS: It might be, again, that Admiral Fallon or others would be the ones that, or the chairman, to comment on that.... There has been a gradual reduction in deaths in Iraq, since about June, I believe it was. That, unfortunately -- in August, we suffered a number of non-combat related deaths due to two helicopter crashes, although the number of combat deaths was lower.

FEINGOLD: General, just let me follow...

PETRAEUS: We need to see what happens in ensuing months.

FEINGOLD: I want the American people to know that in every single month this year, January, February, March, April, May, June, July, and August, a significantly greater number of troops died than in the previous month in 2006 -- in every single month.

SEN. JOHN WARNER (R-VA): I hope in the recesses of your heart that you know that strategy will continue the casualties, stress on our forces, stress on military families, stress on all Americans. Are you able to say at this time, if we continue what you have laid before the Congress, this strategy, that if you continue, you are making America safer?

GEN. PETRAEUS: Sir, I believe that this is indeed the best course of action to achieve our objections in Iraq.

WARNER: Does that make America safer?

GEN. PETRAEUS: 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 of the Multinational Force in Iraq.


The sad part of this whole exercise is not that Petraeus and Crocker tried their best to make a good defense of the indefensible. It is that they are only implementers of a policy. The person who really should have to face those tough questions is President George W. Bush. I consider it a weakness of our system of government that the president — any president — is able to hide behind a phalanx of spokesmen and surrogates, and never have to face questions in a forum where they can't be avoided.

When Bush makes his prime-time address to the nation tomorrow night, people should keep in mind those pointed questions. Just see if Bush ever answers any of them!

The Little Engine That Could is an apt metaphor for the Sisyphean efforts of Petraeus and Crocker.

No less apt, in the opinion of a majority of Americans, is another metaphor, captured in this editorial cartoon by Ben Sargent:

Click on the following images to see other editorial cartoons.

Pat Oliphant Stuart Carlson Tom Toles