Welcome back to the war that never ends

After two days of testimony by the top U.S. officials in Iraq, the situation seems to be this: Security is somewhat better but large parts of the country and even Baghdad are not safe; the Iraqi government is improving but still unable to govern effectively; and the Iraqi army, while getting better, is still not really combat capable.

And these modest post-surge gains, said Gen. David Petraeus, are “fragile and irreversible.” He and U.S. ambassador Ryan Crocker refused to speculate on the course of the war or answer the question on every member of Congress’ mind: When can we get out? Probably for the very good reason that they honestly don’t know.

Petraeus’ response was, in essence, we’ll know it when we get there and we know we aren’t there yet.

This is not where the Senate and House committees with oversight over the Iraq war expected to be when the two testified seven months ago.

The plan now is to withdraw by the end of July five combat brigades deployed for the surge — still leaving 140,000 troops in Iraq, more than before the surge — to be followed by a 45-day period of what Petraeus called “consolidation and evaluation.”

During this period, the general would decide whether to recommend further reductions. And he indicated he wasn’t going to be rushed into committing to more withdrawals. “I’m not using the world ‘brief’ nor the word ‘pause,”’ he cautioned.

Even if the Democrats succeed in building support for a phased pullout, there could be no significant withdrawals of U.S. troops before the November election and maybe even not until after the new president takes office.

As it happens the new president — be it Sen. John McCain, Sen. Hillary Clinton or Sen. Barack Obama — was present at the hearings. The two Democrats favor timetables for withdrawal on the theory that it will force the Iraqis to focus and solve their own problems. McCain says this would be “reckless and irresponsible.” It would certainly be wildly optimistic. The cost of being wrong is that Iraq would dissolve into bloody chaos, destabilizing the entire region.

Petraeus’ and Crocker’s recommendation: Keep on doing what we’ve been doing. Said the general, “We have the forces that we need right now, I believe. We’ve got to continue. We have our teeth into the jugular, and we need to keep it there.”

Even though metaphorically we have the problem by the throat, he warned that victory, however it is defined, is not close. The champagne, he said, “has been pushed to the back of the refrigerator.”