Petraeus Hears Senate Panel's Take on Iraq

Lt. Gen. David Petraeus awaits the start of his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Service i i

hide captionLt. Gen. David Petraeus awaits the start of his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images
Lt. Gen. David Petraeus awaits the start of his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Service

Lt. Gen. David Petraeus awaits the start of his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images
Sen. Hillary Clinton, meeting with Petraeus before the hearing i i

hide captionSen. Hillary Clinton, meeting with Petraeus before the hearing, later voiced her objections to an increase in troop strength in Iraq.

Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images
Sen. Hillary Clinton, meeting with Petraeus before the hearing

Sen. Hillary Clinton, meeting with Petraeus before the hearing, later voiced her objections to an increase in troop strength in Iraq.

Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images
Sen. John McCain and Sen. John Warner. i i

hide captionSen. John McCain, left, beside Sen. John Warner, posed questions that made his views on Iraq strategy clear.

Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images
Sen. John McCain and Sen. John Warner.

Sen. John McCain, left, beside Sen. John Warner, posed questions that made his views on Iraq strategy clear.

Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

There are 25 members on the Senate Armed Services Committee, and they wield a lot of power. Every major military appointment or confirmation has to pass through them.

One of the best ways for a military commander to ingratiate himself with these senators is to admit mistakes in Iraq.

So as the soon-to-be top ground commander in Iraq, Lt. Gen. David Petraeus, met Senators Tuesday, he told them the situation in Iraq is "dire."

The hearing — required as Petraeus is confirmed for a job that will give him a fourth star, making him one of the Army's most senior officers — was really a sort of dance as various senators sought to make their own points about the conflict in Iraq.

"General Petraeus, you have said serious mistakes were made in Iraq since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003?" asked Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-CT).

"That's correct," Petraeus said.

Lieberman pressed on: "And you've said you understand and appreciate the disappoinment of the American people?"

"That is correct, sir," came the reply.

Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), used his time to make some of his points in a round-about fashion.

"Suppose we send you over to your new job, general, only we tell you you can't have additional troops," said McCain. "Can you get your job done?"

"No sir," Petraeus said.

"Suppose that we send you additional troops and we tell those troops that we support you, but we are convinced you cannot accomplish your mission. What effect would that have on your troops?" asked McCain.

"Well, it would not be a beneficial one, sir," Petraeus said.

And some senators weren't interested in asking questions at all.

Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) used her eight minutes to rail against sending more troops to Iraq.

"And I disapprove of the policy, I think it's a dead end," she said. "But if we're gonna do it, let's make sure we give these young men and women everything when we're not doing the political equiation to match for their safety and success."

In the end, almost every senator indicated support for Petraeus, who does have a reputation for telling it like it is.

"This is not about being beholden to anybody," Petraeus said. "This is about giving my best professional military advice and if people don't like it they can find someone else to give their best professional military advice."

President Bush is sending Petraeus off to save America in Iraq. The Senate wants him to save the military from the president. And Petraeus — ever the diplomat — knows how to walk between the drops of rain.

Petraeus Set for Another Shot at Iraq

Gen. David Petraeus, shown from behind during a tour of an Iraqi Army training facility in June 2004 i i

hide captionGen. David Petraeus, shown during a tour of an Iraqi Army training facility in June 2004.

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Gen. David Petraeus, shown from behind during a tour of an Iraqi Army training facility in June 2004

Gen. David Petraeus, shown during a tour of an Iraqi Army training facility in June 2004.

Brent Stirton/Getty Images

Tuesday, the Senate Armed Services Committee will grill President Bush's new choice to lead the fight in Iraq, Lt. Gen. David Petraeus. He's expected to win easy confirmation to become the top ground commander.

A photo on the cover of Newsweek magazine showed Petraeus in front of a Blackhawk helicopter, wearing combat fatigues, a helmet and thick body armor. It featured five giant words in the center: "Can This Man Save Iraq?"

It's a timely question. But the question was first posed in July 2004, when the White House sent Petraeus to rebuild the Iraqi army.

A few days before he left for that trip, Petraeus stopped at NPR, where All Things Considered host Melissa Block asked him this question:

"How much pressure do you feel to get this done quickly, to get the U.S. troops in a position where they can leave?"

"Well, this obviously has a lot to do with our exit strategy," Petraeus said of his training mission. "So all of us want to move out on this as quickly as we can. But at the same time, we need to have tactical patience. And I think we need to be careful not to overaccelerate this and actually rush to failure."

That was a wise premonition, but Petraeus didn't factor in political pressure from Washington. He ended up doing just what he hoped not to do: rush the process. And for a while, the numbers actually looked good.

The Pentagon was making sunny announcements about how the Iraqi army was ready to roll. First it was 50,000 troops. Then 100,000. And by 2006, 200,000 Iraqi soldiers.

Yet only a tiny fraction of those Iraqis Petraeus trained are actually ready to fight today.

Petraeus is not the only one to blame for this, but remarkably, he wasn't ever really blamed at all. There's a simple reason. Almost everybody loves to love David Petraeus, including the hawkish former Army Gen. Jack Keane.

"I think General Petraeus is absolutely the most qualified general officer we have to undertake a change of mission strategy in Iraq," Keane says.

Retired Gen. John Batiste, a Bush critic, counts himself a Petraeus fan:

"If anybody can figure it out, Dave Petraues can," Batiste says.

And to Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Petraeus is "extremely bright, tough-minded, physically tough, a front-line leader," as well as "thoughtful" and "self-confident."

In 2003, Petraeus commanded the Army's 101st Airborne Division in Northern Iraq, with about 20,000 troops under his command.

Unlike the rest of Iraq, his area of command was remarkably stable. Part of the reason was his philosophy of counter insurgency. You win over a population by staying attuned to grievances.

"We don't want to have a situation a month from now when people are saying the equivalent of 'Mussolini didn't give us our personal freedom, but at least the trains ran on time,'" Petraeus said at the time. "'Saddam didn't allow us to speak our mind but at least there was gas at the gas station.'"

It would be nice if this story had a happy ending, but at least so far, it doesn't.

Shortly after Petraeus and his troops left Iraq and returned to Fort Campbell, Ky., in early 2004, most of what they had achieved in their patch of Northern Iraq disintegrated, just as things deteriorated elsewhere in the country.

Now Petraeus finds himself on the verge of returning to Iraq — once again, round three — to work his magic. He has spent the past 15 months writing the Army's new counterinsurgency manual. It's an impressive and massive tome.

But Petraeus now has to put up or shut up. Counterinsurgency theory is... well... theory. And this is the rare case where the person who comes up with the theory is also the one who has to implement it.

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