Bringing Down the House

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SEPTEMBER 10, 2007

Bringing Down the House

Right from the start, the appearance of General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker in the House today looked like it would provide lots of excitement but little news: a strange combination born of our months-long anticipation of the hearing and the fact that we already knew what Petraeus would say (the surge is working; I need more time). When the two men entered the hearing room in the Cannon House Office Building, its inhabitants rushed the stage like teenage girls at a Beatles concert: Some hundred photographers and writers swarmed the tiny hearing table (House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Tom Lantos brought over his wife); one over-eager member of the horde even knocked over Crocker's water bottle and cup, causing Crocker to momentarily hide his face in his hands and mutter, "Aaaah!"

But the actual value added today by Petraeus's statements boiled down to the series of crisp, colorful charts the general presented, which impressed mostly because they showed how much better the military is at making charts than the employees of lawmakers' offices. (A data point for the military-v.-civilian culture wars, I suppose.) The hearing did end up packing a surprise, though: Ambassador Crocker.

Ambassador who? Amid all the hoopla over Petraeus's testimony, I--like many in Washington --had almost forgotten we were going to hear from Crocker today, too. The Washington Postwrote poignantly this morning on the unequal star treatment given the two men:

Two witnesses will testify to Congress today on progress in Iraq. One arrived last week from Baghdad aboard a military aircraft, flanked by a bevy of aides and preceded by a team of advisers assigned a suite of Pentagon offices. The other flew commercial, glad that the flight was long enough to qualify for a business-class government ticket.

Yet it was Crocker, not Petraeus, who came to Washington with the critically important information about the situation on the ground in Iraq, since the whole point of the military surge was to make space for political progress, Crocker's jurisdiction. Plus, unlike Petraeus's findings, his testimony wasn't extensively previewed. So what did he have to say?

The headline to come out of his testimony will be that a "secure, stable, democratic Iraq" is "achievable"--an assessment for which he'll be ridiculed as another Bushie slapping a smile on a disaster. But he had to say that--independent as he supposedly is, he still has a boss. Behind the "achievable" slogan, though, Crocker's outlook was grimmer than one might expect from a Bush official. Compared to the peppy, man-in-charge Petraeus, he sounded morose. "I am frustrated every day I spend in Iraq," Crocker told the room darkly. "There will be no single moment at which we can claim victory," he added, alluding to--and wholly repudiating--Bush's victorious "mission accomplished" moment on the aircraft carrier.

And unlike Petraeus, he didn't try to put a positive spin on the good we could do by staying--he simply offered that he thought the alternative would be even more apocalyptic. During his opening statement, he also avoided mentioning benchmarks by which Iraqis were supposed to measure their political progress. Pressed by Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton on how soon they would be achieved, he replied bluntly, "I frankly do not expect us to see rapid progress through these benchmarks."

So what's to feel happy about in Iraq? Don't think in terms of benchmarks, Crocker advised. To truly judge how Iraqis are doing politically, Crocker said, "We should ask if the way in which they are approaching these issues gives us a sense of their seriousness and ultimate capability to solve these problems." In contrast to Petraeus's kill-stat-based portrait of Iraqi society, which inevitably evoked a primitive civilization ruled by animal passions and riven by bursts of violence as unpredictable as the rains, Crocker spoke of Iraqis grappling with the kind of advanced political-philosophical questions Americans did at the time of our Founding. "I have found it helpful during my time in Iraq to reflect on my own history," he said, in a wishful tone. "At many points in our early years our survival as a nation was questionable." As there was in our early days, he claimed, "There is a budding debate about federalism" now going on in Iraq's political class, and a conversation about the extent to which small, practical steps can overcome problems that can't seem to be solved by sweeping deals. In other words, Crocker does see the fewest seeds of what might someday, somehow, grow into a vibrant democracy.

It's a pretty idea. It assumes some modest desire to repair the country on the part of Iraqi leaders. And it affords their struggle to get it together politically a certain dignity, instead of writing them off as corrupt or idiotic. But unlike the fresh-faced political appointees who went to Iraq in 2003 with the idea of installing democracy in a couple months and going home, I got the sense Crocker didn't believe his vision was ever going to be realized. "It is no exaggeration to say that Iraq is, and will remain for some time to come, a traumatized society," he said, morosely. Simply to provide adequate electricity in the country, he estimated, would take $25 billion through 2016. That's about eight years longer than we've got, given the growing support for withdrawal. And that's just electricity--not emotional healing.

Crocker is right that Iraqi leaders' intentions and how much actual power they wield is more important than whether they have accomplished a specific set of benchmarks--or whether withdrawal will do more harm than good. But his cautious optimism didn't even seem to convince himself. Even when he was describing areas like provincial reconstruction in which he'd had "pretty good luck," Crocker sounded depressed. I think he's well on his way to becoming another tragic figure of this war: well-intentioned, capable, but brought to his knees by the mistakes of others and the sheer immensity of the task he was given. Success is "achievable"? You wouldn't know it from Crocker's manner at the hearing today--a subdued, this-is-all-hypothetical-anyway spirit, like a doctor whose careful and long-ranging diagnoses are for naught because the patient in front of him is already gone.

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