It was a chilly, cloudy day in Washington. And it was just as chilly and just as cloudy inside the Senate hearing room on Capitol Hill, where David Petraeus and Ryan Crocker delivered their long-awaited mid-year assessment of George W. Bush's surge in Iraq. The grim-faced Petraeus—who didn't crack a smile all morning—summed up things succinctly: "We haven't turned any corners. We haven't seen any lights at the end of the tunnel. The champagne bottle's been pushed to the back of the refrigerator."
So much for the "watershed moment" this was supposed to be. To be sure, Petraeus and Crocker marked progress in the micro-steps we've grown used to hearing about Iraq. While "the progress made since last spring is fragile and reversible," said Gen. Petraeus, the commander of multinational forces in Iraq, "Al Qaeda-Iraq and a number of other extremist elements have been dealt serious blows, the capabilities of Iraqi Security Force elements have grown, and there has been noteworthy involvement of local Iraqis in local security." Amb. Crocker, whom Petraeus once referred to (somewhat condescendingly) as his "diplomatic wing man," spoke of political reconciliation at the national level, with the Iraqi Parliament passing laws on de-Ba'athification, pensions and amnesty-but also warned that it was all "reversible."
The bottom line? Everything is far too much up in the air to make any decisions whatsoever about troop levels. Or so Petraeus said. He'll continue his previously announced plans reduce U.S. troops to about 140,000 by July, then halt all drawdowns for 45 days (what some have called a "pause"). At the end of that period, "we will commence a process of assessment to examine the conditions on the ground and, over time, determine when we can make recommendations for further reductions." Petraeus believes that "this approach does not allow establishment of a set withdrawal timetable."
Translation: by Election Day 2008, we won't know much more than we do now about Iraq. So you can start deciding now who to vote for: John McCain, who like Bush has indicated he'll stay indefinitely—or perhaps as long as Petraeus recommends; Hillary Clinton, who said again today that she wants an "orderly process" of withdrawal; or Barack Obama, who is pushing for a somewhat more rapid withdrawal but one that "is leveraged to encourage as much [Iraqi] political reconciliation as possible," as one of his Iraq advisors, Georgetown political scientist Colin Kahl, said today.
Perhaps what was most in evidence on Tuesday—at the beginning of a two-day marathon of hearings before the Senate and House—was the nation's sense of exhaustion over Iraq. It was on the faces of every legislator, even those who have been most avidly supportive of the president. It was on the faces of Petraeus and Crocker, the military-diplomatic "dream team." No one seemed to have the fight in them—even Clinton—to take the two of them on. McCain, who had the most at stake in the lack of good news, wore an even grimmer visage than Petraeus's. Scratching for good news, he settled on the most positive note he could muster. "We're no longer staring into the abyss," he said before launching into detailed questioning. Mission accomplished.