Wall Street Journal
April 10, 2008
By Yochi J. Dreazen
WASHINGTON -- Two days of congressional hearings left a lot of uncertainty about the way forward in Iraq, but the sessions showed how Democrats and Republicans will likely seek to frame the war in the months ahead.
Republicans used the four hearings with Gen. David Petraeus, the top commander in Iraq, and Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador, to accuse Democrats of choosing to lose in Iraq by pushing for a far-reaching military withdrawal just as the situation shows clear signs of improving.
Democrats focused on the war's high costs, accusing Republicans of damaging the armed forces and shortchanging major domestic priorities by devoting resources to Iraq disproportionately.
Democrat Rep. Ike Skelton of Missouri, who chairs the House Armed Services Committee, said, "Whenever you spend $2 trillion on one thing, you don't have $2 trillion to spend on something else." Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida accused Democrats of favoring an "immediate disengagement" that would "embolden the forces of radical Islam."
Iraq has rapidly re-emerged as a heated political issue after being overshadowed by the economic slowdown. The three leading presidential candidates all have sharpened their attack lines about the war in recent days. Tuesday, they used the hearings to preview how they will frame the war ahead of the fall elections.
"The Democrats are focusing on the opportunity costs of staying, and the Republicans are focusing on the costs of leaving," said Peter Feaver, a political scientist at Duke University who formerly served on the National Security Council.
The sparring took place against the backdrop of rising violence in Iraq. Wednesday, the fifth anniversary of Baghdad's capture by U.S. forces, fighting broke out between Iraqi security forces and Shiite militiamen amid new rocket attacks on the heavily fortified Green Zone. U.S. commanders announced the deaths of four soldiers, bringing to 16 the number killed in Iraq since Sunday.
On Capitol Hill, lawmakers from both parties again pressed Gen. Petraeus and Mr. Crocker for indications of when additional U.S. troops would be able to return to the U.S.
The two said troop withdrawals should come to an indefinite halt this summer and refused to offer a timetable for further drawdowns. The only new element came when Gen. Petraeus said he would be unlikely to call for reinforcements even if Iraq's security condition deteriorates after the last of the 30,000 "surge" troops return to the U.S. this summer. "That would be a pretty remote thought in my mind," he said.
With Gen. Petraeus and Mr. Crocker largely rehashing arguments they offered before a pair of Senate panels Tuesday, the political overtones of Wednesday's House hearings became even more pronounced.
Rep. Solomon Ortiz of Texas highlighted the main Democratic talking points about the war when he warned the long war in Iraq had triggered a "significant decrease" in U.S. military readiness. "I firmly believe that we have to be prepared to fight yesterday, today and tomorrow, and I'm afraid that we're running out of options should another contingency arise requiring the use of our ground forces," he said.
Gen. Petraeus said he shared the concerns about the overall health of the American armed forces and is "keenly aware of the strain," adding, "This is something that my family and I do know a great deal about personally."
Republicans, for their part, ratcheted up an emerging line of attack that accuses Democrats of choosing defeat in Iraq. The allegation has been leveled by Republicans before. In the summer of 2007, President Bush told the Veterans of Foreign Wars in a speech that U.S. troops in Iraq were wondering whether policy makers would "pull the rug out from under them just as they're gaining momentum."
Tuesday, Sen. John McCain, the likely Republican presidential nominee, offered a preview of an argument he is likely to use against the Democratic nominee. "The Congress must not choose to lose in Iraq," he said.
Republican lawmakers echoed that sentiment Wednesday, with Rep. Ros-Lehtinen arguing against basing U.S. policy in Iraq on "short-term domestic political considerations," and Rep. John McHugh of New York warning that a premature withdrawal from Iraq would have "devastating consequences for the region and the world."
Rep. Buck McKeon of California spoke for many colleagues when he tried to draw a stark distinction between Republican and Democratic plans for Iraq. "Some people say that we should get out right away. Some people say we should phase out. Some people say we should set dates," he said. "But I think we've also talked about the price of being there and the price of leaving...it is either victory and glory or misery and humiliation."