We began the day wondering if Gen. David Petraeus or U.S. ambassador Ryan Crocker would be willing to tell Congress that if some number of U.S. troops remain in Iraq for some period of time, Iraqi politicians will make the progress that the "surge" was supposed to make possible.
We're still wondering.
Nearly five hours into a joint hearing of the House Armed Services and House Foreign Relations committees, neither Petraeus nor Crocker has been able to offer any real assurance that political progress will come as a result of the U.S. military's continuing presence in Iraq.
As the president's ambassador to Iraq, Crocker is responsible for making sure that political progress in Iraq is moving forward in a way that justifies the sacrifices U.S. troops are making. But asked today how, short of withdrawing the troops, the United States can persuade the Iraqis to get moving on the political front, he had no real answer.
"These are issues that are critical as they are complex," he said. "Looking at it in time, the violence that has been done in Iraq that has deepened divisions and fears goes back to 1968 ... And obviously, it didn't end in 2003, given the sectarian violence we saw in 2006. So there is significant psychic damage to be overcome here."
So how does the United States overcome that "psychic damage"? Crocker didn't have any real answer for that, either. "I find that what I kind of need to do on a day-to-day basis is, first, try to understand," Crocker said. "That doesn't mean saying, 'Well, you're an abused child, so it's OK to do whatever you want.' But it does help to understand why these things are difficult."
At this late date, of course, we don't really need any more help in understanding "why these things are difficult" in Iraq. What we need -- what it would be nice if Petraeus and Crocker could provide -- is some reason to think that keeping well over 100,000 U.S. troops in Iraq through August 2008 and then beyond will actually accomplish something more than just a temporary reduction in violence.
Will the continued troop presence bring political reconciliation? Will it result in a peace that will last after U.S. troops leave? Crocker said that he couldn't guarantee "success" in Iraq, only "failure" if we "abandon" or even "drastically curtail" the stay-the-course course.
Petraeus? He didn't do much better. Late this afternoon, Florida Democratic Rep. Kathy Castor quoted to the general the words of Adm. Mike Mullen, the incoming chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff: Unless Iraqis take advantage of their "breathing space," Mullen told the Senate Armed Services Committee the other day, "no amount of troops in no amount of time will make much of a difference."
What did Petraeus have to say about that? Nothing, it seems. After Castor finished talking, Petraeus gave a long, rambling answer in which he said lots of words about "Marine expeditionary units" and "battlefield geometry" and not a single one about political reconciliation.