Regarding Iraq: Reactions to Petraeus Report

United States Army Gen. David Petraeus and Ryan Crocker, U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, recently reported to congressional leaders on the progress of U.S. troops in Iraq. Former Undersecretary of Defense Ed Dorn, along with Iraq war veteran Spc. Dexter Pitts, share their reaction to the reports and the direction in Iraq.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up throughout the program, reflections of 9/11, including a former New York firefighter's memories of Ground Zero. That's all later.

But first, yesterday, General David Petraeus - commander of U.S. forces in Iraq - and the American ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, gave the first of two days of their long awaited testimony, assessing the progress of the Iraq war to a joint session of the Armed Services and Foreign Affairs Committees of the House.

Even before Gen. Petraeus got to speak, the stakes were evident by the anti-war protesters who jeered the proceedings before being hauled out of the room.

(Soundbite of shouting crowd)

MARTIN: Today, both men will address the Senate, but the issue is the same: Is progress being made in Iraq, and how soon can American troops leave?

To discuss Petraeus' report, we're going to turn to Edwin Dorn, a professor of public policy at the University of Texas and the former under secretary of defense for personnel and readiness during the Clinton administration. He joins us from member station KUT in Austin, Texas. Retired Army Specialist Dexter Pitts served in Iraq with the U.S. Army from June of 2004 to January of 2005 when he was wounded by a roadside bomb, or IED. He joins us now from Louisville, Kentucky. Welcome to you both.

Professor EDWIN DORN (Public Policy, University of Texas; Former Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness): Thanks, Michel.

Specialist DEXTER PITTS (U.S. Army Specialist, Retired): Thank you very much, Michel.

MARTIN: Ed Dorn, if I could start with you, even before Gen. Petraeus began his testimony, there were those who suggested that there's no way that they would really believe him. And there was even an ad in the paper, a full-page ad, taken out by an activist group that generally sides with the Democrats, saying that there's no way that his assessment would - could be considered objective. And, in fact, the polls show that most Americans did not have high hopes for this this morning. But I wanted to ask you as a former high ranking official, is that fair to question his credibility?

Prof. DORN: I don't think that is fair, Michel. I can understand how or why a number of people would do it. After all, it's been pretty clear on previous occasions during this conflict that generals have been required to tow the party line. Those who did not tell the party line were humiliated. And so there is a question now always about whether a general is doing something merely to tow the party line. I think it's an unfair charge against Gen. Petraeus. He's not only a very smart guy, but an honorable guy.

So what I look at is the text. What is he saying? How does he define the problem, and do his solutions match the problem he's defined? And that's where I find the problem with Gen. Petraeus' testimony.

MARTIN: Okay. Why don't you elaborate on that point?

Prof. DORN: Gen. Petraeus began by defining the major problem in Iraq as sectarian violence. He says, well, there are some secondary problems with al-Qaida, with insurgents, with common criminals, but the big problem is the Shia-Sunni conflict. I absolutely accept him at his word that sectarian violence is the big problem. But his testimony was focused on what he's done to suppress the al-Qaida presence in al-Anbar province. Now that is a success story, but by Petraeus' own definition, it is success with an ancillary problem.

MARTIN: Specialist Pitts, let me get your reaction to what you heard in the general's testimony and in Ambassador Crocker's testimony.

Spc. PITTS: What I heard in Gen. Petraeus' testimony, I thought was a lot to be true. I mean, being a soldier and being that I've been to Iraq, and I still have friends that are over in Iraq currently right now, a lot of things are telling me there's a lot of things that the general was talking about today that there is progress being made all over the country.

In parts of the country, like Mahmoudiyah where my friends are located at, they're telling me that their attacks have dropped off dramatically, and that the people are turning against the insurgents and al-Qaida overwhelmingly more and more. Everyday, more and more people are coming out against these people. I mean, the testimony I thought was really good.

MARTIN: When you say it was really good, what do you mean? Did it make you feel encouraged? Did it make you feel that your service there was meaningful and is actually contributing to a positive outcome there?

Spc. PITTS: I mean that I felt like my service is there is no - it's contributing to something that's going to be great for this country later down the road, and that I think, really think that if we keep going in the direction that we're going, there's going to be something spectacular in the end.

MARTIN: Ed Dorn, I think the headline for many people is that General Petraeus said that he's recommending a drawdown of the surge forces from Iraq. In fact, that later this month, a Marine expeditionary unit will depart. They won't be replaced. And he's suggesting that the additional troops sent over as part of the surge can be brought back by July of 2008. He said he wasn't willing to suggest beyond that when additional troops may come home. Do you find that to be an encouraging statement? How do you interpret with that statement? Do you think that's a positive sign?

Prof. DORN: I don't see it as a positive sign for following reason. By next summer, we basically will have run out of surge troops under the best of circumstances. Remember the surge is supported in two ways. One is by sending additional troops to Iraq. The other is by extending the tours of soldiers already in Iraq from 12 months to 15 months.

The Secretary of Defense Bob Gates has promised that those tours will not be extended. So there is going to be a natural drawdown. They're simply going to run out of forces to support the surge. In that sense, I don't find General Petraeus' commitment to go beyond what we know is going to happen under any circumstances.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm talking with Ed Dorn, former under secretary of defense, and Army veteran Dexter Pitts.

Dexter Pitts, how do you - since you've been home, respond to those who say that the price Americans have paid in this conflict is already too high, and they want your colleagues back home now? What do you think?

Spc. PITTS: I mean, when I hear that, I mean, I can say that I know how they feel and understand where they're coming from. I would love to see all the troops come home. I would love to see my friends come home. I don't want to see no more - any more moms crying about their son or daughter not coming home because they got killed in Iraq. But at the same time, I don't want all my friends that have gotten killed and all the soldiers that have lost their legs and their limbs to just be pulled out of Iraq, and then it would all have been for nothing.

MARTIN: Many Americans worry that there is an escalated civil war, that basically, American troops and those coalition forces remaining are the only thing keeping that country from civil war. What do you say?

Spc. PITTS: I say I completely agree with it. These people have been at war with each other since almost the beginning of time. We're not just going to step in and tell them to stop fighting. Once we leave, the country is probably going to explode. But at the same time, it will eventually going to happen anyways, in my opinion.

MARTIN: It sounds like you're torn.

Spc. PITTS: I'm very torn. It's hard for me to take a side. I really can't, because I don't want everything that I've done - I don't want my 12 operations, my six months at Walter Reed, my closest 12 friends killed. I don't want it to all be for nothing. But at the same time, I do not want to see any more flag-draped caskets coming home. I don't want to have to go to Walter Reed anymore to see young 18-year-olds with their legs and limbs severed from their body.

Prof. DORN: Michel, you know, I don't think I've ever heard of more articulate description of the way a soldier can view this from both sides.

MARTIN: So Ed Dorn, as we've said that the general and Ambassador Crocker will be addressing the Senate, is there anything additional that they could say to address the concerns that Specialist Pitts has raised, and certainly that other Americans have raised about whether the ongoing American presence is indeed worth it?

Prof. DORN: I don't know, Michel. It's - they are both in very tough situations. And I have no doubt that they're trying to do their best to carry out the president's policy. The problem is that we are in a pretty difficult, I dare say, an untenable situation. And at some point - a year from now, two years from now, 10 years from now - we are going to withdraw American forces from Iraq. It is very unlikely that within five or even 10 years, we will have effected enough of a reconciliation between those historically conflictual parties to guarantee that the place is not going to explode in civil war.

MARTIN: But Ed Dorn, can I ask you to put your sort of public policy analyst hat on along with your, you know, former Defense Department hat and ask, do you think that the level of troop withdrawal that General Petraeus is saying he is now going to recommend, is that going to be sufficient to allow Americans to feel that perhaps the American presence is winding down to some degree? And if that does occur, is there going to be enough progress to allow Americans to feel that the sacrifice that is already been made has been worth it?

Prof. DORN: The American public is becoming increasingly more negative toward this war. A year from now, I expect that American attitudes toward this war will be overwhelmingly negative. There is not a solution. Frankly, I don't think anybody yet have been smart enough to figure out how to get us out of this mess.

MARTIN: Specialist Pitts, if I could hear a final thought from you about whether you felt when you were there and have you felt since you've been home that the troops are getting adequate support.

Spc. PITTS: I believe the troops are getting adequate support, but a lot of times I feel - when I see people drive around with a sticker on their car that says, you know, I support troops, you know, they just had - I think - my opinion is I think a lot of people just put that on the car just to say that they're doing their part, and a lot of them could really care less because they're not affected by the war directly because they don't know anybody that's in the war.

MARTIN: What could they do to show you that they do care? Or what could Americans do to show you more effectively that they do care, if they care?

Spc. PITTS: Those organizations that put out, you know, care packages going to my friends, my brothers and sisters overseas, write them letters. Any simple thing can do. A lot of people say that you, you know, we're for the troops, but we're for - against the war. That's fine, do what you want to do, but always support the troops no matter what. Because a lot of people fighting don't agree with the war, you know. This is our job, to go and fight this war whether we like it or not, and we appreciate any little support we can get.

And like I say, there's a lot with a protest to war. To the people that protest the war, all they got to say, God bless you. And know what? Thank you for protesting, because it is because of the sacrifices of the men and women from past generations that have died, they're giving you the right to protest. So protest all you want, because it would be a shame for us all these people have died and then not to speak their opinion.

MARTIN: Retired Army Specials Dexter Pitts served in Iraq from June of 2004 to January 2005. He joined us from Louisville, Kentucky. We were also joined by Ed Dorn, former undersecretary of defense and now professor of the University of Texas. He joined us from member station KUT in Austin, Texas.

Gentlemen, thank you both so much for speaking with us.

Spc. PITTS: Thank you very much.

Mr. DORN: Thank you, and Specialist Pitts, thank you for your service and your sacrifice.

Spc. PITTS: Thank you very much, sir. I appreciate talking to you today.

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Frustration Evident as Officials Grilled on Iraq

Gen. David Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker testify on Capitol Hill i i

Gen. David Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker testify during a joint hearing on Capitol Hill on Monday. Tim Sloan/AFP/Getty Images./AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Tim Sloan/AFP/Getty Images./AFP/Getty Images
Gen. David Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker testify on Capitol Hill

Gen. David Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker testify during a joint hearing on Capitol Hill on Monday.

Tim Sloan/AFP/Getty Images./AFP/Getty Images

NPR News Special Report

Download a one-hour report on Tuesday's hearing:

Politics at Play

Crucial to whether Gen. David Petraeus' Iraq assessment lands with applause or a thud are eight Senate Republicans who broke ranks with President Bush over the summer. All eight hail from states where the war is unpopular; half face tough re-election bids in 2008.

On their second day of congressional testimony on the situation in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker on Tuesday largely reprised their opening statements from Monday, when they appeared before members of the House.

But this time, America's top commander and top diplomat in Iraq faced more intense grilling from a generally more skeptical audience — and, troubling for President Bush, some of the toughest questions about the war in Iraq came from Republican senators.

"Are we going to continue to invest blood and treasure at the same rate we're doing now? For what?" asked Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-NE), who supports legislation setting a deadline to bring troops home.

"Americans want to see light at the end of the tunnel," said Sen. Norm Coleman (R-MN).

Over two days of testimony, Petraeus has said that the American troop presence in Iraq —currently at 160,000 — could be reduced by about 30,000 by next summer, and that the military goals of the current "surge" have largely been met. Crocker, meanwhile, has warned that the political situation remains unstable. During Tuesday's testimony, the two men refused to be pinned down on when the situation in Iraq might allow for an end to the U.S. military commitment there.

President Bush, meanwhile, plans to address the nation in a televised speech at 9 p.m. Thursday EDT. According to the Associated Press, citing unnamed administration officials, the president plans to follow Petraeus' recommendations on reducing the U.S. military presence in Iraq, but will condition troop cuts on continued progress. The White House plans to issue a written status report on the so-called "surge" Friday, officials told the AP.

An Audience of Presidential Hopefuls

At times, Tuesday's hearing resembled a presidential debate, as Petraeus and Crocker sat opposite a number of senators vying for their party's nomination: Republican John McCain (AZ), and Democrats Hillary Clinton (NY), Joseph Biden (DE), Christopher Dodd (CT) and Barack Obama (IL). They peppered Crocker and Petraeus with questions and, more often that not, diatribes.

"We are now confronted with the question: How do we clean up the mess and make the best out of a situation in which there are no good options, there are bad options and worse options?" Obama asked the general and the ambassador.

In another exchange, Biden tried to pin down Crocker on an expected timeframe for concluding the U.S. commitment in Iraq.

"You're saying the process will not be quick," Biden said. "Are you talking about not quick meaning a timeframe of a year; or are you talking about not quick being well beyond the end of next summer?"

The ambassador replied that it "could be well beyond the end of next summer," and then added, "It certainly will be well beyond the end of next summer before Iraq can achieve the end state I've laid out."

Walking a Fine Line

As a showdown with Congress over his war policy looms, President Bush is counting on several key Republican senators. Yet tough questions at Tuesday's hearing suggest that their support may be eroding.

Sen. John Warner (R-VA), one of his party's most respected voices on military matters, expressed doubt about the "bottom-up" approach to military and political progress that the White House has touted lately. "We have to have top-down, not bottom-up reconciliation," he said.

One of the most critical GOP senators was Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, who recently announced he will not seek re-election next year. Hagel spent several minutes questioning "the disconnects" in the findings of several recent reports on Iraq. And he also questioned the value of using U.S. troops to "buy time" for an Iraqi political reconciliation process that has made little progress.

But as other senators did on Tuesday, Hagel tempered his criticisms of war policy with praise for the general and the ambassador.

"It's not your fault, general," Hagel said. "It's not Ambassador Crocker's fault. It's this administration's fault."

Hagel was one of several GOP senators on the panel to express doubt that extending the U.S. military commitment in Iraq would necessarily yield results.

"As policymakers, we should acknowledge that we are facing extraordinarily narrow margins for achieving our goals," said Sen. Richard Lugar (IN), the ranking Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee.

Political Stability When?

Crocker, meanwhile, stressed that political negotiations in Iraq were beginning to yield results, after a period in which the Iraqi government had been "basically dysfunctional."

"There is an enormous amount of dysfunctionality in Iraq. That is beyond dispute," he acknowledged, adding that change was occurring gradually. Yet he also cautioned against leaving a power vacuum in Iraq. "An Iraq that falls into chaos or civil war will mean massive human suffering — well beyond what has already occurred within Iraq's borders," Crocker said, repeating a warning he made Monday.

The ambassador said political stability could not be achieved in Iraq without reconciliation between the country's Sunni and Shia Muslim factions. When asked whether that could happen before the end of President Bush's term in office, Crocker offered "no timelines or guarantees," but said he could point to "some hopeful signs."

Sen. Obama said he feared the bar had been set "so low that modest improvement" in the political situation was now considered success. "And it's not. This continues to be a disastrous foreign-policy mistake," he said.

Obama then pressed the question of a timetable for withdrawal, asking Crocker if he could see "any point, any benchmark, any scenario" that would signal it was time for U.S. forces to leave. Crocker again would not be pinned down.

Petraeus, too, showed some irritation with the question, telling one senator that he was "as frustrated with the situation as anyone else."

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