The good news from the testimony of General David Petraeus before a joint session of the House Armed Services and Foreign Affairs committees was certainly not found in his repetition of his claim that, despite all evidence to the contrary, the Bush administration’s surge of troops into the Iraq quagmire is “in large measure” meeting its military objectives.

That political statement from Petraeus, the statistically-pliable U.S. commander in Iraq, was predicted days ago by intelligence analysts and officials with the Government Accountability Office, when they detailed how the general and his aides are using doctored data to create the false impression that sectarian violence is declining as a result of the surge.

Nor was there any news to be found in the warning by Petraeus that it would be “premature” to start taking serious steps to extract U.S. troops from the quagmire. Indeed, the best the general could propose was a return to pre-surge troop levels – the status rejected by American voters in last fall’s House and Senate elections — by some time in 2008.

Nothing that Petraeus told the House committees during the first of two days of efforts by the White House to cloak administration spin in a military uniform was any more newsworthy than General William Westmoreland’s 1967 claim to Congress that progress was being made in southeast Asia. Indeed, the whole sorry performance by a another general who has chosen to sacrifice his credibility on the altar of political expediency, confirmed the bumper sticker slogan that says: “Iraq is Arabic for Vietnam.”

What made Monday’s hearing newsworthy, then, was the fact that the chairs of the two committees that hosted Petraeus displayed not the frustrating deference that has tended to characterize the responses of a compliant Congress to a deceptive White House but an appropriate level of skepticism.

House Armed Services Committee chair Ike Skelton, a hawkish Democrat from Missouri, opened Monday’s hearing by detailing the long history of the administration’s “overoptimistic” assessments of progress in Iraq. Skelton asked whether the U.S. is “beating a dead horse” by maintaining a massive troop presence in the region.

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Tom Lantos, a California Democrat who like Skelton voted in 2002 to authorize Bush to attack Iraq, described the occupation as a “fiasco” and said in his opening statement: “It would be refreshing if these two capable and dedicated men would outline a new plan that would redeploy our troops and bring them home from Iraq. But I expect instead that the September report — written not by one of our great military leaders and one of our most capable diplomats, but by Administration political operatives — will be a regurgitation of the same failed Iraq strategy. I expect this report will be replete with the same litany of requests — more troops, more money, more patience — and all in the unlikely belief that our intervention in a bloody, religiously-based civil war will bear fruit.”

Bluntly expressing his frustration with the administration’s refusal to be honest with Congress – and leaving little doubt of his sense that Petraeus had been sent to Capitol Hill to maintain the deception — the congressman told the general he was no longer “buying” claims about progress in Iraq. “We cannot take any of this administration’s assertions on Iraq at face value anymore,” said Lantos.

That brought cries of outrage from administration boosters. Duncan Hunter, the California Republican who is mounting a pro-war presidential campaign that is currently garnering something less that one percent in the polls, growled: “I hope the purpose of this hearing is not to discredit General Petraeus before he takes the stand.”

As it happened, Petraeus discredited himself before he took the stand. The general’s repetition of spun statistics and fantastical assessments merely confirmed the fact of his misplaced loyalty to an administration that has betrayed the troops commanded by Petraeus.

That was the outrage on display Monday. The skepticism expressed by Skelton and Lantos was the refreshing – and newsworthy – development of the day.


John Nichols’ new book is THE GENIUS OF IMPEACHMENT: The Founders’ Cure forRoyalism. Rolling Stone’s Tim Dickinson hails it as a “nervy, acerbic, passionately argued history-cum-polemic [that] combines a rich examination of the parliamentary roots and past use ofthe ‘heroic medicine’ that is impeachment with a call for Democraticleaders to ‘reclaim and reuse the most vital tool handed to us by thefounders for the defense of our most basic liberties.'”