As the political rhetoric on Capitol Hill grows louder over President Bush's plan for a troop buildup in Iraq, a panel of four seasoned retired generals give their assessments of the president's proposal. What they told members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranged from tentative support for the plan to calling it a fool's errand.
As the four retired generals faced the Foreign Relations panel, Illinois Democrat Barack Obama rose in the Senate chamber to propose capping the number of U.S. troops in Iraq, and to push for a phased withdrawal of the ones already there.
"The president has offered no evidence that more U.S. troops will be able to pressure Sh'ia, Sunni and Kurds toward the necessary political settlement," Obama said. "And he's attached no consequences to his plan should the Iraqis fail to make progress."
At the hearing, Nebraska Republican Chuck Hagel pressed Obama's point in an exchange with former Southcom commander Gen. Barry McCaffrey.
"We're threatening consequences, what are the consequences?" Hagel asked. "There are none," McCaffrey said. He then added that the United States can do little short of leaving.
Gen. Jack Keane, a former Army vice chief of staff, was also skeptical, particularly about plans to put Iraqis in the lead for military operations.
Still, Keane said by starting out pacifying mixed Sunni-Shi'a neighborhoods, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki could build up enough trust to use political rather than military means to deal with the notorious militias of Sadr City.
Gen. William Odom was far more skeptical of the plan. He told senators that the biggest source of instability in Iraq is paradoxically the presence of U.S. forces there.
Odom said that "withdrawal from Iraq" on "a serious and irreversible schedule, is the only thing that will change the polarity of the situation to give this president an opportunity to design a strategy that has some prospect of victory."
Beyond Iraq, senators also wanted to know if there's anything to growing talk of a possible U.S. attack on Iran. Former U.S. Centcom commander Gen. Joseph Hoar would not dismiss that possibility.
"I don't know why you have two carrier battle groups in the Gulf," Hoar said, "when fixed-wing air — while an essential part of any campaign — doesn't require a lot of airplanes on a day-to-day basis; and why you would have an admiral in charge of Centcom when you have two essentially ground combat operations going in two separate campaigns."
Hoar said those discrepancies "would all indicate to me that there's something moving right now towards Iran."
Committee chair Sen. Joseph Biden said he plans to redraft the use-of-force legislation to make clear it does not authorize an attack on Iran.