The Magazine

Men at Work,
Children at Play

The telling difference between General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker, and their congressional inquisitors.

Sep 24, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 02 • By FREDERICK W. KAGAN and WILLIAM KRISTOL
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Suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.
--Mark Twain

This week, America heard about Iraq from two serious men, General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker. They understand Iraq in all its complexity. They have an astonishing mastery of the details of what's going on in almost every part of the country and an amazing grasp of virtually every aspect of a complex war, a multilayered society, and a new and fluid polity. They have clearly thought about the policy options before us with a seriousness appropriate to individuals who, every day, exercise considerable authority and bear great responsibilities. Last week, they were able, despite the comparative shallowness and guile of their questioners, to explain the choices we face with clarity and honesty at a critical moment in our nation's history.

The congressional critics provided quite a contrast with Petraeus and Crocker. If the general and the ambassador were men at work, the congressmen and senators were--with a few notable exceptions--children at play. They spoke almost entirely in generalizations--often months, sometimes years, out of date. They used selective quotations and cherry-picked facts to play "gotcha." They offered no meaningful proposals of their own. Petraeus and Crocker live and breathe Iraq, dealing with life-and-death problems seven days a week. Congress bloviates Tuesday through Thursday. That's one of the reasons to listen to the general and the ambassador rather than the congressional pontificators.

The contrast between those who know something about Iraq and those who don't continued with the president's speech on September 13. Bush described America's objectives in Iraq clearly, explained the strategy he is pursuing, outlined the progress that it has made in detail and in specific areas of Iraq, explained why he intends to continue that strategy with minor adjustments, and announced a conditions-based reduction of forces, which General Petraeus had recommended. In response, Senator Jack Reed spoke in the vaguest terms. He repeated the Democratic shibboleth that there has been no political progress in Iraq because the Iraqi government has not passed the benchmark legislation--ignoring the complex, nuanced, real-world discussion Petraeus and Crocker (and, yes, Bush) had offered about the different ways in which groups of citizens, local and provincial governments, and even the Maliki government have been able to make varying degrees of progress toward the goals the benchmark legislation is supposed to achieve. Reed also announced that the Democrats "have put forth a plan," which he then sketched in a few sentences. We would all like to know exactly what this Democratic plan is and when the Democrats intend to share it with the rest of us. We frankly doubt that a party whose leaders seem unable to discuss the war in Iraq in any but the simplest terms can develop a plan that will lead to anything other than disaster.

The speeches of September 13 highlighted another key problem in this discussion. Reed dismissed all the hard-won gains of our forces and our diplomats in Iraq with the assertion that the surge was intended to allow the Iraqi government time to pass benchmark legislation, which the Iraqis have failed to do. Ergo, he and other critics say, the surge has failed. But American forces are not in Iraq to enable the Iraqi parliament to have a nice-looking scorecard. As the president said in his speech, our primary objective in Iraq is to prevent al Qaeda from establishing a base there. We must also work, as the president said, to ensure that Iran does not "fill the vacuum." Establishing a stable, democratic Iraq would secure these objectives, in addition to being inherently desirable. But a productive legislative session of the Iraqi parliament is only a means to all these ends, and only one possible means.

By focusing entirely on the political problems in the Iraqi parliament, critics of the current strategy score polemical points by ignoring indisputable gains with respect to the core American objectives. Progress in recent months in Iraq has enhanced American security. Al Qaeda In Iraq has gone from near-ascendancy in 2006 to near-collapse in 2007. The reason Iran has dramatically increased its efforts to destabilize the elected, Shia-dominated government in Baghdad is that the Shia terrorists, too, have been set back, as American and Iraqi forces have done real damage to the Iranian-backed "secret cells" and death squads that are the agents of this destabilization. These are facts. But congressmen don't deal much with facts.