Cross-examine Petraeus


It is an anxious and impatient nation that waits for Monday’s testimony from the top U.S. officials in Iraq, Gen. David H. Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker. They are brilliant and dedicated men who have accepted unenviable jobs, and their views deserve our careful consideration. If, however, the White House has scripted their testimony to try to sell Congress and the nation on “staying the course” through a fifth year of disastrous occupation of Iraq, President Bush must be made to reconsider.

At this historic juncture, it would be insufficient for Petraeus and Crocker merely to report on the military accomplishments of the “surge,” which will in a matter of weeks boost the number of U.S. forces in Iraq to 172,000, up from about 130,000 early this year. And it would be ludicrous to debate whether to bring home a token brigade of 4,000 troops in time for Christmas. No, the key questions on which we are most eager to hear the views of Petraeus and Crocker are these: What is the least dreadful strategy for winding up U.S. military involvement in Iraq? What can be done to minimize the inevitable American and Iraqi casualties as the U.S. withdraws its troops? Which political, military and diplomatic actions are most likely to reduce the length and ferocity of the ongoing Iraqi civil war and the risk of intervention by Iraq’s neighbors, during and after the U.S. disengagement? And how best can the United States mitigate the massive crisis of Iraqi refugees?

Instead, it seems likely that the scope of the debate in Congress will be limited to Petraeus and Crocker reporting that the security situation in Iraq has materially improved as a result of the troop buildup, and to antiwar Democrats citing reports from the Government Accountability Office and Gen. James L. Jones’ commission to argue that those gains are minimal or ephemeral. But the most essential facts about Iraq today are beyond dispute: The political progress that was supposed to flow from a more secure environment has not materialized. Many Iraqi citizens are politically freer but suffering more danger and privation than they did under Saddam Hussein. The multi-sided Iraqi civil war may have been suppressed, but it has not been settled. And therefore, absent at the very least a cease-fire among the many warring Iraqi factions, all of the hard-won U.S. military gains -- which have cost us at least $50 billion, 674 dead and nearly 4,000 wounded since the surge began in February -- will prove irrelevant.


Meanwhile, the United States has been arming and supporting a corrupt and incompetent Shiite-dominated government and police force as well as their sworn enemies, Sunni tribal and militia leaders, some of whom previously fought the Americans. Petraeus and Crocker should be pressed on their views on how to keep these and other militias from a bloody contest for power the moment U.S. forces leave. And they must be asked not merely when best to begin U.S. troop withdrawals, but how fast to complete them.

Later next week, Bush is expected to announce his plans for Iraq. We hope he won’t repeat his mistake in deciding to invade Iraq: making up his mind and ignoring all countervailing evidence. If the “decider” has already fixed the outcome, the Petraeus-Crocker exercise is meaningless.