There is a deeper reason why today's testimony was less than exciting: most of the content of that testimony was already known and expected beforehand. General Petraeus was merely repeating facts which have already been well-publicized and which have already had a decisive impact on the debate.
This is not an accident. Petraeus has gone to a lot of trouble to make sure that those facts were known and repeated. NRO has an interesting little article on Petraeus's deliberate engagement with the media as another front in the war, which has led him to be very active in bringing reporters to places like Anbar province to see the evidence of our progress there. The far left is screaming, of course, that Petraeus has therefore been "manipulating" the media to make it look as if there has been more progress than there really is. They don't like this because their job is to manipulate the media to make it look as if everything is hopeless—and he has thwarted their efforts.
Perhaps all of this is why the style of General Petraeus's testimony is so deliberately low key and restrained. He has already won the media battle, so why seem to be trying to hard to push his viewpoint?
His testimony had only one line with a distinctively sharp political edge to it. Democratic leaders in Congress had spent the past week describing Petraeus's report as the "Bush report" and slandering the general as a subservient mouthpiece for the administration. So he began his testimony with this: "At the outset, I would like to note that this is my testimony. Although I have briefed my assessment and recommendations to my chain of command, I wrote this testimony myself. It has not been cleared by, nor shared with, anyone in the Pentagon, the White House, or Congress." Well, that ought to clear that up.
For the record, here are the key points of Petraeus's testimony.
The first point was actually phrased somewhat better in the general's recent letter to his troops (the link is to a PDF), in which he stated that "we have achieved tactical momentum and wrested the initiative from our enemies." In his opening statement to Congress, he used the somewhat less expressive words "substantial progress" and described the progress this way:
[T]he military objectives of the surge are, in large measure, being met…. Coalition and Iraqi forces have dealt significant blows to Al Qaeda-Iraq. Though Al Qaeda and its affiliates in Iraq remain dangerous, we have taken away a number of their sanctuaries and gained the initiative in many areas.
We have also disrupted Shia militia extremists, capturing the head and numerous other leaders of the Iranian-supported Special Groups, along with a senior Lebanese Hezbollah operative supporting Iran's activities in Iraq….
Additionally, in what may be the most significant development of the past 8 months, the tribal rejection of Al Qaeda that started in Anbar Province and helped produce such significant change there has now spread to a number of other locations as well.
Based on all this and on the further progress we believe we can achieve over the next few months, I believe that we will be able to reduce our forces to the pre-surge level of brigade combat teams by next summer without jeopardizing the security gains that we have fought so hard to achieve.
Beyond that, while noting that the situation in Iraq remains complex, difficult, and sometimes downright frustrating, I also believe that it is possible to achieve our objectives in Iraq over time, though doing so will be neither quick nor easy.
He said a little bit more about the coalition's success in convincing the Sunni tribes to switch loyalties and fight al Qaeda, but he did not have to say much because this story has already been widely reported. That's the advantage of having events on the ground on your side.
The upshot of the testimony was that Petraeus is using the current success to buy at least six more months. At the current rate of success, he told Congress, the US should be able by next summer to reduce its forces back to the number that were deployed before the surge began. Beyond that, he said, the goal was to go from "leadership" to "partnering" to "overwatch"—that is, to go from US troops leading the fight against the insurgency, to our troops sharing the work equally with Iraqi forces, to the US merely supporting and supervising Iraqi forces. This would mean further reductions in our commitment of troops to Iraq. But on this issue Petraeus was very firm.
Force reductions will continue beyond the pre-surge levels of brigade combat teams that we will reach by mid-July 2008; however, in my professional judgment, it would be premature to make recommendations on the pace of such reductions at this time. In fact, our experience in Iraq has repeatedly shown that projecting too far into the future is not just difficult, it can be misleading and even hazardous….
In view of this, I do not believe it is reasonable to have an adequate appreciation for the pace of further reductions and mission adjustments beyond the summer of 2008 until about mid-March of next year. We will, no later than that time, consider factors similar to those on which I based the current recommendations, having by then, of course, a better feel for the security situation, the improvements in the capabilities of our Iraqi counterparts, and the enemy situation.
Translation: I just bought another six months to fight the war. See you again next March.
The only really interesting new aspect of Petraeus's testimony was the full extent to which our military leaders—and, presumably, their civilian superiors—now see the war in Iraq as a Cold War style proxy battle with Iran. Petraeus confirmed what I have suspected—that, as we win against al-Qaeda and the Sunni insurgency, US forces will increasingly turn their attention to the Shiite militias—and he described that conflict in the following terms.
In the past six months we have also targeted Shia militia extremists, capturing a number of senior leaders and fighters, as well as the deputy commander of Lebanese Hezbollah Department 2800, the organization created to support the training, arming, funding, and, in some cases, direction of the militia extremists by the Iranian Republican Guard Corps' Qods Force. These elements have assassinated and kidnapped Iraqi governmental leaders, killed and wounded our soldiers with advanced explosive devices provided by Iran, and indiscriminately rocketed civilians in the International Zone and elsewhere. It is increasingly apparent to both Coalition and Iraqi leaders that Iran, through the use of the Qods Force, seeks to turn the Iraqi Special Groups into a Hezbollah-like force to serve its interests and fight a proxy war against the Iraqi state and coalition forces in Iraq.
On this issue, US Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker added more detail, particularly about the consequences of a congressionally mandated American retreat from Iraq:
I am certain that abandoning or drastically curtailing our efforts will bring failure, and the consequences of such a failure must be clearly understood by us all…. Undoubtedly, Iran would be a winner in this scenario, consolidating its influence over Iraqi resources and possibly territory. The Iranian president has already announced that Iran will fill any vacuum in Iraq.
So yes, our leaders are aware that Iran is the real, long-term enemy we're fighting in Iraq—even though they have so far decided that we will fight Iran only piecemeal and indirectly. Crocker did at least take an effort to undo one bit of damage caused by his superiors at the State Department. Condoleezza Rice has authorized multiple meetings with Iranian envoys in an attempt to convince them to "help" in stabilizing Iraq. Crocker burst any fantasy that this is likely to happen, stating flatly that "Iran plays a harmful role in Iraq." Well, of course it does.
For his part, General Petraeus concluded his testimony by reminding Congress that if we want to win a war, we have to be willing to commit to it for the long haul: In describing the recommendations I have made, I should note again that, like Ambassador Crocker, I believe Iraq's problems will require a long-term effort. There are no easy answers or quick solutions. And though we both believe this effort can succeed, it will take time.
As I said, none of this is a great surprise for anyone who has been following the news out of Iraq. It has all been widely reported and discussed over the past few months, and it has already had a powerful impact on the political debate. The result is that when Democratic leaders returned from Congress's August recess, they found they had lost all political momentum to end the war and they did not have enough votes to cut off funding for the surge.
The desperation of the anti-war left can be seen in the fact that they have had to resort to character assassination of Petraeus. The anti-war group MoveOn has gone so far as to take out an ad in the New York Times—to be published on September 11, no less—denouncing America's top battlefield commander with the slanderous moniker "General Betray-Us." And the same politicians who, as House Minority Leader John Boehner reminds us, used to lecture about the need to "listen to the generals" have declared their refusal to listen to our top general in Iraq.
It is a foolish political strategy, especially given the respect Americans have for the officers of the world's most professional army. Indeed, public opinion polls show that 68% of Americans trust military officers to make decisions about the war—far more than trust the US Congress to do so. In a political battle between the Democratic leadership of Congress and General Petraeus, Petraeus will win—and the Democrats have decided to fight just such a battle.
But this foolish decision is just a small part of the Democrats' problem. Their bigger problem is that they have become "invested in defeat," to use a phrase that we are starting to hear frequently. Because they have declared so loudly and for so long that the war is hopelessly lost and all that we can do is organize an orderly retreat, any evidence of American success in Iraq will discredit them. They need a total failure in Iraq in order to survive politically.
This puts them fundamentally at odds with the American character and sense of life. Americans don't like to lose wars. As we have seen, they will turn against President Bush if they think he's losing the war—but if it looks like we're winning, or at least that we have regained some momentum toward victory, they will support the person who offers them the prospect of victory.
That's what General Petraeus has done—and in doing so, he has achieved as important a turning point in the battle for Washington, DC, and he has in the battle for Anbar province in Iraq.