In highly anticipated Capitol Hill hearings, Gen. David Petraeus on Tuesday got the chance for a do-over. The famously media-savvy commander of U.S. forces in Iraq made what some called a rare stumble in testimony last September, when Republican Sen. John Warner posed a question about whether America was safer for its efforts in Iraq. "I don't know," was the general's short answer.
On Tuesday, Warner posed the question again. "Is all this sacrifice," he wondered aloud, "bringing about a more secure America?" This time, Petraeus was clearly not caught off guard. "Well, I've thought more than a bit about that" since September, he said.
He went on to note that "Iraq has entailed huge costs" for America—for the more than 4,000 U.S. troops who have died there, and for a military so strained by a war on two fronts that it is grappling with the opportunity cost of being unable to conduct operations elsewhere. Ultimately, he said, it is a question that will have to be answered by history.
Warner, in a snappy moment that prompted reporters in the packed press gallery to glance up from their laptops, pushed for an answer. "My time on the clock is moving pretty quickly," he said. "It was a fairly simple question." Some 80 percent of Americans, Warner noted, just don't accept the premise that it's worth it. "Can you now, just in simple language, tell us yes, it is worth it?"
It was a striking plea—and it was the question at the heart of the hearings. Violence in Iraq is trending down—gains that are characterized by Republicans and Democrats alike as real but relative—but at what cost to America and to its military fighting the war?
It is the chief dilemma with which the Pentagon, certainly, is grappling these days. Petraeus has come to Capitol Hill to press the point that once the last of the surge forces leave Iraq in July, there must then be a pause in troop reductions. Gains on the security front, he stressed, remain both fragile and reversible, a point that has been highlighted by the recent convulsive violence in the strategically pivotal port city of Basra and by the spike in casualties in Iraq this month.
But this is fueling some nervousness among Pentagon leaders who must concern themselves not only with progress in Iraq but with strains on the force and threats elsewhere in the world. Last week, Gen. Richard Cody, the Army's vice chief of staff, said that "the current demand for forces in Iraq and Afghanistan exceeds our sustainable supply of soldiers, of units and equipments, and limits our ability to provide ready forces for other contingencies." For this reason, senior Pentagon officials are, suffice it to say, wary of such a pause.
What's more, there was a question for Petraeus about whether "pause" is even quite the right word.
Sen. Carl Levin, the Senate Armed Services Committee chairman, took a moment to delve into the vocabulary. During his opening statement, Petraeus proposed that this summer "we undertake a 45-day period of consolidation and evaluation. At the end of that period, we will commence a process of assessment to examine the conditions on the ground and, over time, determine when we can make recommendations for further reductions."
Reporters in the press galley tended to underline this portion of Petraeus's printed statement with a question mark.
So too, apparently, did Levin. "I'm not sure what the difference between evaluation and assessment is," he said. But "it seems to me," he added, that this is a plan "which has no end to it. You do not use the word which Secretary [of Defense Robert] Gates used twice, which is that it would be a 'brief pause.' I assume that's intentional."
"Sir," Petraeus answered, "I'm not using the word 'brief' nor the word 'pause.'"
Few currently believe that there will be many fewer than 140,000 U.S. troops in Iraq by January, when President Bush hands over the reins of Iraq to the next U.S. president. In light of this, Pentagon leaders have been pushing for a consolation prize of sorts—a decrease in troop deployment lengths, from the grueling 15 months that soldiers currently serve in Iraq, back down to 12 months. President Bush is expected to announce such a move later this week.