The Magazine

Playing Offense

Congressional hearings? Go on the offensive.

Jan 15, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 17 • By ROBERT KAGAN and WILLIAM KRISTOL
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YOU MAY HAVE NOTICED from this week's festivities that the Democrats now control both houses of Congress. Bush administration officials certainly have. Their minds have been concentrated by the prospect of congressional Democrats holding hearings on just about everything--but especially on Iraq, and beginning right away.

Administration officials are undoubtedly dreading the prospect of testifying, if only because time spent preparing and hours consumed by testimony will make it harder for them to do their jobs. But these hearings could have a real benefit. If the administration handles them properly, they can clarify for the American public the stark choice we face in Iraq: between a policy of withdrawal and defeat, and a policy aimed at success and victory.

True, congressional critics will want to spend much time looking back at failures in the administration's Iraq policy. That is legitimate, and administration officials should frankly acknowledge the errors committed since the beginning of the occupation. Not least of those errors was the decision to commit far too few troops to bring stability and security to Iraq after Saddam was toppled.

But the real policy question--what matters now--is how to correct those errors and move forward. This week the president will set forth his proposal. We hope and expect it will include a clear articulation of a new strategy for Iraq--a real effort, based on classic counterinsurgency doctrine, to secure the Iraqi population, first in Baghdad, and then in Anbar, along with substantial aid for economic development and jobs for Iraqis. This will be supported by a rapid increase in the size of the force in Iraq by around 30,000 troops, and will signal a sharp departure from the failed Rumsfeld-Abizaid-Casey minimalist approach.

Once the president has set forth his strategy, administration officials will go to Capitol Hill, where they will need to explain and defend it. They will need to be prepared for the many hostile questions that will be posed by congressional critics, including by those hoping to use these hearings to catapult themselves toward the presidency in 2008.

But the administration witnesses need to do more than defend the president's proposal. These hearings are also an opportunity to go on offense: to point out that the choice in Iraq is not between the president's proposal and some other, more perfect plan. As the Baker commission amply demonstrated, there are no other brilliant ideas out there about how to achieve an acceptable outcome in Iraq. The only real alternative to what the administration is proposing is some form of withdrawal--and defeat.

The task in these hearings, then, is not just to explain and defend the president's plan, but to make the point that it is better than any plausible alternative, especially withdrawal. Committee members should not be allowed to get away with simply criticizing the president's plan. They must also explain what they would propose instead.

And if what they propose is withdrawal, then they must be asked to explain how that would work. And they should be asked to answer a few basic questions about how they would deal with the consequences of withdrawal. How would they respond to the eruption of full-blown civil war in Iraq and the massive ethnic cleansing it would produce? How would they respond to the intervention of Iraq's neighbors, including Iran, Syria, and Turkey? And most important, what would they propose to do if, as a result of our withdrawal and the collapse of Iraq, al Qaeda and other terrorist groups managed to establish a safe haven from which to launch attacks against the United States and its allies? Would they favor another invasion of Iraq to root out these terrorist bases? Or would they tolerate the establishment of another terror base, bigger and better funded than the one that developed in Afghanistan?



Although congressional committees prefer asking questions to answering them, these hearings should not be the usual one-sided affair, where senators read prepared questions and administration officials politely read prepared responses. Administration officials can't let themselves simply play defense. They need to frame the alternatives--and insist on an open and searching dialogue about what to do next, about what can work and what can't, and about the consequences of whatever course we take. The result of such a dialogue will be to present the American people with a real discussion of the risks and the possibilities of all the options--exactly what the Baker commission with its closed-door meetings and artificial consensus did not provide.