Just the Facts

We are at a new point in the American experience of the Iraq war. It is also a decisive one: We have to decide, now, what to do. Stay. Go. Stay in a certain way, or at a certain size. But the mood of the moment, the mood of many Americans, is at odds with one of the demands of decision making.

Big decisions require a certain spirit, a certain do or die—the faith and wildness to roll the dice, throw ‘em, watch and roll again. That’s gambling, of course, not decision making, but many big decisions are to some degree a gamble. Our president must think this, for he so often doubles down. The Decider is The Gambler.

I was thinking this week about how the mood now, among normal people and political figures, is so different from the great burst of feeling that marked the early days of the war—the 17 days to Baghdad, the unstoppable Third Infantry Division, the dictator’s statue falling. The relief that Saddam didn’t use poison gas, as he had against the Kurds, that he collapsed like an old suitcase and got himself out of Dodge. There was a lot of tenderness to those days, too—the first tears at the loss of troops, the deaths of David Bloom and Michael Kelly. Still, the war seemed all triumph, a terrible swift answer to what had been done to us on 9/11.

Then occupation, the long slog, the beginning of bitterness. They thought they could do a war on the cheap? They thought shock and awe would stun ancient enmity into amity? And the puzzlements. Sometimes you looked at the war and wondered, Is Washington’s plan here that good luck began this endeavor and good luck will continue? But how can you lean so much on luck! At this point, about 18 months ago, Americans started thinking, It’s strange to assume good news. Bad news happens. Those guys in Washington must never have faced a foreclosure.

The American people are not impatient, but they are practical. They have a sense of justice and duty to which appeals can be addressed; they will change themselves to better themselves; and they are very proud of their country. But they have sacrificed in Iraq. And they didn’t do it to make it worse. It’s not that the U.S. hasn’t won quickly. It’s that the people of the U.S. can’t see a path to winning.

And so last week spirits on all sides and among all sorts of players were relatively low, and statements seemed less like a debate than a sigh. But great nations can’t sit around sighing, and all of us know this.

At the end of last week it seemed we knew the immediate future—the administration will get what it asked for, more time—but had no greater sense of long-term outcomes.

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In a way, David Petraeus won the day when MoveOn.org came forth with its famous “General Petraeus or General Betray Us?” ad. They shot themselves in the foot and deserve to be known by their limp. Republicans enacted fury (Thank you, O political gods, for showing the low nature of our foes!), and Democrats felt it (Embarrassed again by the loons!). No one—no normal American—thinks a U.S. Army four-star came back from Iraq to damage our democracy by telling lies.

Gen. Petraeus’s testimony was dry, full of data points and graphs. He gave the impression that everything he said was, to the best of his considerable knowledge, true. One sensed that like good witnesses everywhere, he was not saying everything he thought.

General Petraeus TestifyingHe was earnest, unflappable, and low-key to the point of colorless. Maybe he figures things are colorful enough. I felt relief that he was not wearing his heart on his sleeve or talking about our guys and gals. It was very Joe Friday: Just the facts, ma’am.

He clearly had a point of view, and it was, not surprisingly, in line with the administration’s. But I think the appearance of independence and straight dealing that was necessary to his credibility was lessened by the White House’s attempts to associate itself with him in the weeks leading up to his appearance.

The level of sophistication and seriousness shown by Sens. Barack Obama, Joe Biden, John McCain and Chris Dodd was equal to the moment, and seemed to me patriotic. They were probing, occasionally strict, always respectful. At one point Gen. Petraeus was asked by Sen. John Warner if Iraq has made America safer and said, “Sir, I don’t know actually. I have not sat down and sorted out in my own mind.” Later, invited to expand on this by Sen. Evan Bayh, he said he’d been surprised by Mr. Warner’s question and added that “we have very, very clear, very serious national interests” in Iraq.

That of course is the great question. History will answer it.

An unspoken part of the larger story is that Gen. Petraeus backed up the argument that our troops have been stretched painfully thin, and the postsurge presence cannot, practically, be maintained. Thus a seeming illogic in the general’s presentation: For the first time in years we’re making progress, therefore we should reduce troop levels to the same point at which we made no progress.

In seeming to stand pat and at the same time lower temperatures by bowing to public pressure and reducing troop levels, the administration has made a virtue of necessity. This was not unshrewd.

As for the president’s speech on Thursday night, it managed to seem both wooden and manipulative, which is a feat. For days conservative commentators had warned that the president should leave the week where it was, and not put on it his distinctive stamp. They were right. He said “the character of our people” is being revealed as we choose whether to back the Iraq endeavor. He said he would “explain” recent events there. He said the mission “will evolve.” It will. It has.

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One felt at the end of the week that Iraq will continue as a long and ongoing story, that it is unlikely that we will find a perfect moment to leave, that it will always be too soon, the situation too delicate. It will always seem a place perched on a precipice over a canyon.

One sensed too that Iraq will in fact be issue No. 1 to be faced by the next president, whoever he or she is. That individual, in January 2009, will likely be faced by mischief makers of all stripes throughout the capital, with a question that is an artificial construct. “Did he see the mission through?” Or “Did he lose Iraq?” The latter would be most unjust, because we never had Iraq. We haven’t found it, in spite of our best efforts, because the people of Iraq never found it. And it was their nation to find. This seemed clearer than ever this week, which was part of the reason for the sighing.