General Petraeus: Designated Manure Spreader

WE KNOW THAT SPRING HAS officially arrived in Washington. And not just because of the blooming of the cherry blossoms along the banks of the Potomac. There’s also the predictable flowering of the bar graphs, pie charts and florid slides inside the congressional committee rooms. They pop alive now every September and every March as General David Petraeus makes another of his ritual slogs up Capitol Hill and into our living rooms.

He calmly reassured us, one more time this week, that the continued bloodshed in Iraq is a regretful but necessary fertilizer for a troubled, fragile but growing democracy.

Perhaps that’s a tad grandiose a characterization. But the whiff of cow dung in the air was, nevertheless, unmistakable. First there was the “surge,” the general explained. And soon, when spring turns to summer, there might — might — be a “drawdown.” But first we must undertake a six-week period of “consolidation and evaluation.” After that, we shall “commence a process of assessment” to see if we’re really gonna have that drawdown. To quote one of the general’s former bosses, this is all quite unknowable. And so we find, after some repeated questioning of the general, when year’s end comes, we are just as likely as not to still have 140,000 troops in Iraq — more than the number we had after the 2003 invasion.

Put bluntly: Now, in the sixth year of this catastrophe, 18 months after the election of a supposedly antiwar Congress, after tens of thousands of shovel loads of bipartisan gobbledygook about timetables, benchmarks, phased (as opposed to unphased?) redeployment, after more than 30,000 wounded and 5,000 dead (if you count the casualties among “civilian contractors” not to mention countless Iraqi civilians), the war in Iraq is no closer to a terminus than it was when Bush landed on the USS Abraham Lincoln and strutted the flight deck in his codpiece.

No one acquitted himself with much honor during this latest performance by Petraeus. I felt mostly pity for the general, who, by most measures, seems a rather decent fellow stuck in a rather indecent position. No one much enjoys the assigned task of designated manure spreader.

THE PERSON WHO OUGHT TO HAVE been in that congressional hot seat, who should be made to publicly answer for a nonsensical and immensely counterproductive policy, is none other than the commander in chief himself. Petraeus is but his hapless implementer, and to make him answer for the disaster that is Iraq truly serves no end.

Not that Bush would have been exactly grilled in the unlikely — really impossible — event that he would ever stand publicly to defend his colossal folly. On the one side, we heard the Republicans, many of whom, on matters of Iraq, demonstrated themselves to be as thick as three boards nailed together. Nary a one dared to ask as much as a single question that would reveal any significant knowledge on their part or that of the much-better-educated general sitting in front of them.

Indeed, the ghost of Lenny Bruce — who used to joke about what a tough time a good ol’ boy like LBJ had properly pronouncing the word “Negro” — haunted the committee chamber as a doddering, script-driven John McCain once again bungled the difference between Shia and Sunni. He knows that al Qaeda is one of them, but can’t keep straight which one. His fellow GOP bench mates also squandered their time, and ours, by lamely trying to entrap the elusive general into mouthing slogans of partisan convenience. Mississippi Republican Senator Roger Wicker had a truly delusional moment when he compared the war policies of George W. Bush to those of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.

Nor should one have taken very seriously the Democrats on the committee. For sure, Michigan’s Carl Levin, chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, called Petraeus’ surge-pause-assessment scheme a “plan which has no end.” Hillary Clinton took advantage of the cameras to mutter that the war policy, which she voted to authorize, might now be “irresponsible.” For his part, Barack Obama called the war, rightfully, a “massive strategic blunder,” but then engaged in a stultifying give-and-take with Petraeus on how we should or should not define success. How many more times must we see the Democrats posture and bluster, parse and hedge, without once and for all taking the quite simple measure to refuse to vote for any further funding for the war?

One lone soul sitting in the audience was brusquely ejected by security guards when he interrupted the general with shouts of “Bring them home!” You have to wonder what’s in the head of such a protester. What does he think is accomplished by such an act? But one thing you have to grant the guy — whoever he was. He seemed the only person in the room who had a clear, concise and unequivocal position on the war.