The Myopic Iraq Debate

The Myopic Iraq Debate

Like the war itself, the unfolding Congressional hearings on what to do next raise more questions than answers.


It was not quite the coming attraction the Bush Administration wanted. In a prelude to testimony from US Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker and top Iraq commander David Petraeus on Tuesday, Congress held a week of jam-packed Iraq-related hearings, attempting to measure the progress–or lack thereof–of the Administration’s troop surge.

Reports were released, generals testified, politicians of both parties squabbled for the upper hand. Amid a barrage of metrics, benchmarks and press releases, I attended four such hearings in two days. Here is what I learned:

♦ Virtually no progress has been made to reconcile Sunnis and Shias; what military progress there has been in places like Anbar province will be difficult to sustain or transfer to other parts of the country.

♦ There is no reliable data to measure whether sectarian or overall violence is down.

♦ The provincial reconstruction teams designed to repair Iraq lack the capacity and continuity to make much of a difference.

♦ Iraq’s military cannot operate independently and their national police should be disbanded.

On day one, David M. Walker, comptroller general of the General Accountability Office, took questions from the House Armed Services Committee about the GAO’s assessment that the Iraqi security forces and parliament had only met three of the eighteen benchmarks for progress that were agreed upon by Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki.

Republicans tried to turn Walker’s testimony away from the the dysfunctional legislature and US-dependent military described in the report, to look at recent gains in Anbar province.

“The benchmarks have turned a blind eye to progress,” said Representative Joe Sexton of New Jersey. “To be accurate the surge is working.”

But Walker countered that Sunni unification in Anbar province against al-Qaida in Iraq might be a matter of temporary expedience. “There is a saying in that region of the world that the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” he said. “How long will the Sunnis in Anbar and the U.S. be friends?” Walker also doubted that the progress in the mostly Sunni region, which was the site of the President’s visit to Iraq Monday, could be transferred to other parts of the country.

He testified that he did not trust the methodology of military data on sectarian violence, which Democrats have said is cooked. But after nearly 45 minutes of discussion on the issue declared, “Is this even a relevant debate? Violence is violence.” And overall violence, Walker noted, has been always been down in August, right before the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.

That afternoon Iraq Deputy Inspector General Ginger Cruz painted an even bleaker–and largely overlooked–picture of the pace of US reconstruction in Iraq. Cruz testified that only 29 of 610 provincial reconstruction team members in Iraq can speak Arabic. “Given the admittedly dismal state of essential services in most parts of the country,” Cruz she told the House Appropriations and Investigations subcommittee,” it is hard to paint a picture that diverges from reality and retain credibility with the Iraqi citizens who suffer from a lack of security, a lack of services, a working justice system or a working economy.”

On day two, William Perry, Secretary of Defense under Clinton, testified to the House Armed Services and Foreign Affairs Committee that Congress needs to look not just at the level of violence in Iraq but “global security requirements and priorities” for the United States. General John Keane advocated sticking with the surge. “I don’t know how losing the war will help us radical Islam,” Keene said. Republicans jumped on Keene’s point noting that in provinces like Anbar, US troops are rooting out al-Qaida in Iraq.

The final hearing of my Iraq policy odyssey featured retired United States Marine Commander James Jones, discussing an independent military commission report finding that while the surge has been a “tactical success in some regions,” it has led to almost no progress in enabling Iraqi Security Forces to operate independently. The national police is broken and likely beyond repair, the commission report reveals, and it will be at least a year before the Iraqi military can deal with their own country, much less external threats.

“Perceptions and reality are frequently at odds with each other when trying to understand Iraq’s problems and progress,” General Jones testified. He was referring to the problems Americans have understanding Iraqi culture. But he might as well have been talking about the political dialogue that emerged from the hearings.

Because despite all the damning reports and testimony, the past week seemed to generate little momentum for Congress to develop a plan to leave Iraq. Hours of Democratic assertions and questions did not connect the dots between a chaotic and corrupt Iraq and a plan for withdrawal.

Instead, it was the Bush loyalists who did less with more, endlessly repeating three key talking points: violence, particularly sectarian violence, has recently declined, the Sunni-dominated Anbar province is a model of tribal militias cooperating, and David Petraeus is the only authority that matters at the end of the day.

Democrats, meanwhile, had a tougher time getting their narrative in order. Many, like House Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton, strictly examined the tactical nature of the surge, conceding that some military gains had been made but political reconciliation was lacking. “Despite the valiant efforts and accomplishments of our military, the Iraqi government has not taken advatange,” Skelton said.

But few Democrats explicitly called for plans to leave Iraq. What compelling Democratic testimony there was gave a big picture look at the purpose of the US mission in Iraq and why it needs to be sustained. “What would happen if we didn’t have military forces there?” Arkansas Democrat Vic Snyder asked David Walker during the GAO hearing. “Would there be genocide? How would it affect our relationship with the Muslim world?”

Seemingly seizing on a chance to a broaden the Iraq debate, Walker replied that, “We need to fundamentally reassess what our goals ought to be. We need to define objectives. Then we need metrics and milestones and periodic reports to Congress.”

Like the war itself, the hearings seem far from over.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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