The Petraeus Effect
Politicians once looked to this week as one that might trigger seismic changes in the debate over President Bush's Iraq policy. But as the history of the long conflict has demonstrated, there are few definitive moments that suddenly transform public opinion or dramatically shift the political balance.
That doesn't lessen the magnitude of what will unfold in Washington beginning today with the testimony of Army Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker. What they tell lawmakers in the House and Senate will shape, and possibly reshape, both the debate over Iraq policy and public opinion about the war.
But as Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution put it in an e-mail message before the testimony began, "I actually think that this week, while clearly very important, will nonetheless be anticlimactic in many ways."
What O'Hanlon meant was that the Petraeus-Crocker testimony is not likely to lead to the kind of significant Republican defections that would produce legislation setting a timetable for withdrawal of U.S. forces. "In all likelihood, Congress will remain disaffected with the war, yet continue to fund it more or less as the president requests."
But the arrival of the long-anticipated Petraeus report has injected a certain amount of uncertainty into the political debate that already has spilled into the presidential campaign.
Democrats in particular appeared nervous about the prospect of a report that will offer a mixed assessment of what the surge strategy has produced. A new Washington Post-ABC News poll released Sunday showed that, while Americans remain generally pessimistic about the war, their assessment of the surge has improved slightly since July.
As one Democratic strategist put it in an email message over the weekend: "I worry that the GOP has defined the surge narrowly as a set of military tactics and will be able to claim success for it. The Dems [sic] have not done a good enough job of defining the surge as a military strategy in service to a political solution -- which has not occurred and is no closer to occurring."
The Democrats' fears were on display Sunday during the morning talk shows and the presidential candidates' debate in Miami as the candidates sought to challenge Petraeus's findings even before he began speaking.
On NBC's "Meet The Press," Joe Biden, just back from Iraq, said, "This administration's policy and the surge are a failure," adding that the surge has done nothing to bring about the kind of political reconciliation needed to allow Iraqis to fend for themselves.
Of Petraeus, he said, "I really respect him. And I think he's dead, flat wrong."
John Edwards, in the Univision debate, was far less charitable toward Petraeus. "What I'm concerned about with this Petraeus report is that it will be basically a sales job by the White House, that it will be a P.R. document because that's what we've continually got from this administration throughout the course of this (inaudible) war."
One presidential campaign strategist predicted the Petraeus testimony would have the effect of either emboldening the candidates to resist Bush's policies even more vociferously or result in more pressure from the left on those candidates who fail to step up and do so. The pressure could be especially strong on Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.
The impact on the Republican race could be far more interesting. A GOP strategist offered this pre-testimony assessment of the political fallout: "My guess is Petraeus will help McCain the most and hurt Dems the most. McCain has the least-nuanced position and now seems to be running even more with it than away from it. Any good news, any sign of progress, allows him to say, 'I told you so.'"
McCain is counting on this week to help produce a turnabout for his candidacy, piggybacking on the Petraeus testimony with a "no surrender" campaign tour of the early states. He has moved far more aggressively than his rivals to embrace and amplify the assertion that the surge is working and is now committed to seeing that Republican audiences accept that interpretation and give him credit for backing the policy without equivocation from the start.
That is part of the prelude to what will unfold during a busy week of appearances by a cast of characters. Petraeus and Crocker will appear before both the House and Senate. Bush will speak to the nation. Obama has an Iraq speech scheduled in Iowa. Cable TV will have little else but "Whither Iraq?" for the next several days.
This week's debate will play out against public opinion that remains firmly entrenched against the war. Matthew Dowd, who was the chief strategist in Bush's 2004 reelection campaign and who has since broken with the White House, offered an analysis of public opinion on The Huffington Post Sunday.
Dowd made four points. First, that the public believes the war was a mistake and that continuing with the status quo is also a mistake. Second, that the public does not equate withdrawing the troops as a sign of disrespect for the troops. Third, that the public sees the war strictly as a foreign policy matter and not related to domestic security.
His fourth point is the most provocative: "The public is waiting for leaders from both political parties to stand up to the president and say enough is enough. They would like this situation resolved -- and soon -- and there is no other solution acceptable to them other than bringing the troops home."
The Post-ABC News poll lends credence to that assessment. It showed that almost six in 10 now favor a decrease in the number of troops in Iraq and a bare majority (52 percent) said they would like to see a troop withdrawal begin by the end of this year.
What may count most this week will be Bush's speech to the nation. Will a token draw down of troops satisfy those who want the war to start coming to an end? Will Bush persuade the public and more importantly Republicans on Capitol Hill to give his policies more time? Or will they conclude that they must send a stronger signal of opposition to the current course?
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