Victory in Iraq?

The president's men aren't making any promises.

Published July 31, 2007 5:04PM (EDT)

At a press conference earlier this month, George W. Bush said he believed that the United States could "succeed" in Iraq. It seems that some of his military men aren't feeling so optimistic.

At a confirmation hearing today on Capitol Hill, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., asked Adm. Mike Mullen, the president's nominee to succeed Gen. Peter Pace as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, whether he thought it was still likely that the United States would win in Iraq. Mullen tried to punt, then pretty much said no.

From the transcript:

Graham: How would you assess our likelihood of winning, given what you know now, Admiral Mullen?

Mullen: I think it's very important, back to the regional stability, Senator, that we take steps to ensure that it is secure, that it can contribute ...

Graham: The question is not whether it's desirable to win, but the likelihood of winning. We all know it's desirable to win, but the likelihood.

Mullen: Based on the political, lack of political reconciliation at the government level, obviously -- although I spoke earlier about some of it going on at the local level, which I think is important -- I would be concerned about whether we'd be winning or not.

Marine Gen. James Cartwright, the president's pick to serve as vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs, was only a little less equivocal. "I think we can win," he said when Graham put the question to him. "It's going to be a challenge. In September, we're going to get the opportunity to assess if the path we're on is the right path or whether we want to make adjustments."

The report in September is the one that's coming from Gen. David Petraeus, and Petraeus himself signaled today that he's not feeling too rosy about how things are going. During his recent appearance on "Good Morning America," Diane Sawyer asked Petraeus if he's "still optimistic" about Iraq. His answer:

"Well, you know, what I say now is that I'm not an optimist or a pessimist. I'm a realist ... We've had our moments of optimism. And, frankly, some of those moments were in that particular summer [of 2004] as we headed toward the elections, and we remember the purple-finger moments and the wave of optimism that accompanied the elections and some of these other moments of progress. Sadly, a lot of that was undone by the horrific sectarian violence that reached really damaging levels in the November, December and January time frame of this past winter, to the point that the very fabric of Iraqi society has been torn. That's the environment in which we are now operating, so at this point, I am a realist and I am very aware of the challenges here; I am keenly aware how hard this is, but I would also say that hard is not hopeless."

Back at the confirmation hearing, Cartwright acknowledged that there may come a time when the U.S. troops serving in Iraq decide that the situation is, indeed, hopeless. "They believe in their mission. They're going to do their best to provide the headroom, if we use that term, to allow that government the opportunity," Cartwright said. "But there comes a point at which they're going to look at that and say, 'How much longer and for what prize?' if progress isn't seen."

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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