Throughout two marathon days of Capitol Hill testimony on Iraq last week, one thing was clear: No one could accuse the star witnesses, Gen. David Petraeus, commander of U.S. troops in Iraq, and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker, of unbridled optimism as they advocated delaying a decision on troop reductions beyond those set for the next few months. "We haven't turned any corners. We haven't seen any lights at the end of the tunnel," said Petraeus. "The champagne bottle's been pushed to the back of the refrigerator."
Democratic Rep. Eliot Engel of the Bronx, for one, took note. "Your testimony now is sober," he said. "It's not as upbeat as it was." For his part, Republican Sen. John Warner expressed exasperation as he grasped for some measure of reassurance. "My time on the clock is moving pretty quickly," he said to the general. "Can you now, just in simple language, tell us, 'Yes, it's worth it'?" It was a striking plea—and it was the question at the heart of the hearings.
But there was a subplot, too, evident as Petraeus fielded questions from, barring a surprise turn of events, the next U.S. president. This was a chance for Sens. Hillary Clinton, John McCain, and Barack Obama to appear up to the task of being commander in chief. Clinton wondered aloud about the responsibility of continuing a war that has failed to produce promised results, McCain warned of the terrible consequences of hasty withdrawal, and Obama asked how, exactly, we would know when we had won. On this last point, Petraeus explained: "Ambassador Crocker and I, for what it's worth, have typically seen ourselves as minimalists. We're not after the holy grail in Iraq; we're not after Jeffersonian democracy. We're after conditions that would allow our soldiers to disengage."
As for the common refrain—is it worth it?—Petraeus ultimately gave Warner the affirmative answer he wanted. But on both sides of the political aisle, and inside the Pentagon, a lingering question remained: At what cost to America and to its military forces?