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We learned this month that American men and women will continue to patrol the streets of Iraq for at least two more years — at the least.
The admirably stoic Gen. David H. Petraeus and Ryan C. Crocker, the American ambassador to Baghdad, faced the big guns on Capitol Hill and stood their ground, under fire. They are not willing to pull U.S. troops out of the country beyond the “surge” brigades any time soon. President Bush will leave office with no plan to extract more than 100,000 Americans from Iraq.
The three presidential candidates, Barack Obama, John McCain and Hillary Clinton — all senators, agreed the much-delayed “surge” of extra American soldiers into Iraq had worked but could not pull any definition from Petraeus or Crocker on how we will know it is time to pull out except that withdrawal will be based on “conditions” that Americans will know when they see them.
McCain exulted that progress has been made, even though Petraeus stressed it is “fragile” and “reversible.” McCain said, “We are no longer staring into the abyss of defeat, and we can now look ahead to the genuine prospect of success.”
But he and his buddy, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, are among few optimists left in Washington. (And yet again McCain seemed confused as to the difference between Sunnis and Shiites.)
Obama wondered how Iraqis will ever get themselves organized if they believe the United States has an open-ended commitment to spend $14 billion or more a month on Iraq.
“Nobody’s asking for a precipitous withdrawal,” he said. (He has suggested he would bring troops home 16 months after taking office if he is elected.) “But I do think there has to be a measured but increased pressure, and a diplomatic surge that includes Iran.”
Clinton, pondering why the Iraqi parliament gets to vote on a U.S. commitment to Iraq but the U.S. Congress does not, said it is time to “begin an orderly process of withdrawing our troops, start rebuilding our military and focusing on the challenges posed by Afghanistan.”
Obama, too, brought up the fact that the Taliban poses new threats in Afghanistan, that Osama bin Laden is thought to be hiding in Pakistan, and that the U.S. military doesn’t have the troop strength to do what it needs to do in either country.
Both Petraeus and Crocker, praised extravagantly for their service to their country, had to admit that the Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki ordered an assault on Shiite militias in Basra, instigating more violence, without consulting them.
They had to confess that they have no timetable to offer on when U.S. men and women will stop dying and being injured in Iraq or even when soldiers will no longer face repeated tours to Iraq.
They had to admit that billions of dollars’ worth of training and five years of effort have not made Iraqi forces capable of defending their own country. They all but ignored the political benchmarks the Iraqis were supposed to have met by now but have not.
They could not explain why Iraqis greeted the president of Iran, a pariah in most western countries who wants nuclear weapons and hates Israel, with huzzahs and kisses while Bush, their liberator, has to be secretly flown in and out of the Iraq.
Petraeus at one point said about prospects for withdrawing from Iraq, “The champagne bottle has been pushed to the back of the refrigerator. And the progress, while real, is fragile and is reversible.”
That is the grim reality that Petraeus and Crocker forced us all to face. Having gone into Iraq with naive beliefs and expectations and for all the wrong reasons, we are now stuck there. We eventually will leave, but it will take years. And we will be dealing with the chaos in the Middle East that we helped cause for decades more.
(Scripps Howard columnist Ann McFeatters has covered the White House and national politics since 1986. E-mail amcfeatters(at)nationalpress.com)