Petraeus Is Selling; Is America Buying?

Gen. David Petraeus has offered two days of testimony on Capitol Hill. Is America buying into his comments? What do the general's words on Iraq mean for the future of the war effort?

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

NPR's senior news analyst Ted Koppel has also been listening to the testimony of General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker. And he says it's the numbers that tell the real story.

TED KOPPEL: We are a nation of shoppers and, oh, how we love a bargain. We don't even particularly care that the price may have been jacked up before it was slashed. There's something about a 25 percent-off sale that sets our pulses pounding. Thirty thousand U.S. troops out of Iraq by next summer. What a deal.

Isn't that roughly the same number of troops that made up last winter's surge? Aren't they just taking out the additional troops they put in? Sure, but it's the beginning of a drawdown, that's the important thing. All that's missing in this much-ballyhooed week of congressional testimony, news conferences, and exclusive interviews with General Petraeus is a must-sell sign. The fact of the matter is we've run out of available troops to deploy in Iraq.

Without a draft, without speeding up rotations and cutting time spent at home, the Pentagon had no option but to cut back U.S. forces in Iraq by about 30,000 troops during the spring and summer of '08. It was going to happen anyway.

But to look upon this as anything other than a response to a manpower shortage is to invite disappointment, if not, a sense of betrayal. This is not the beginning of a drawdown leading to an end of U.S. involvement in Iraq. This is a predicate to settling in for the long haul.

Saddam Hussein and his sons are gone. The weapons of mass destruction turned out to be a massive intelligence failure. Al-Qaida in Mesopotamia didn't exist when this war was launched, but now it does and it must be contained, and if possible, eradicated. The pleasant illusion that America can play midwife to a secular republic in Iraq is fading.

What then, of all the original reasons for going to war, obliges the United States to keep many tens of thousands of troops in there for years to come? Of the original stated reasons - none. But there was a reason that Washington tolerated Saddam and his weapons of mass destruction throughout the 1980s, the same reason that President Bush, the elder, resisted the temptation to overthrow Saddam in the 1990s - Saddam was a counterweight to Iran.

Two admittedly nasty regimes, which however, kept each other in check, until that is Bush, the younger, toppled Saddam, crushed his Sunni-dominated government, and elevated Iran-Shiite allies to power. It's a colossal mess.

But whoever succeeds the Bush administration, Democrat or Republican, we'll have little alternative but to keep U.S. troops in Iraq to help clean it up.

This is Ted Koppel.

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