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April 03, 2008

Posted by Ilan Goldenberg

Props to the House Armed Services Committee.  A number of folks have been making the argument that Petraeus and Crocker shouldn't be allowed to testify by themselves.  Or that at the very least their testimony on Iraq needs to be put in the broader strategic context. Now it looks like the Petraeus-Crocker hearings will be followed the same day, by a hearing on the status of our ground forces with witnesses who have yet to be named, but who I imagine will include senior generals and members of the Joint Chiefs. 

This is absolutely crucial.  As Larry Korb explained a couple of weeks back:

But other military leaders who are looking at the larger national security picture need to be consulted. They know well how maintaining an average of 130,000 troops in Iraq over the last five years has not only decimated our ground forces, it also has compromised our security interests around the globe...

The reason we need the head of Central Command and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs at the table was demonstrated last September. Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), a former secretary of the Navy, asked Petraeus, "If we continue what you have laid before the Congress ... does this make America safer?" Petraeus correctly responded, "Well sir, I don't know."

Mullen, Casey, Fallon or the next Centcom commander could tell Congress and the country that the answer to that question is no. Congress must demand the full military picture if it is to fulfill its constitutional responsibility to provide for the common defense.

It'd be better if you can actually have Petraeus sitting next to Mullen, Casey or Fallon.  But this is the next best thing.  Now let's home the other committees follow.


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Fallon's out. Casey (who couldn't stabilize Baghdad in three years) and Mullen got along (like Petraeus) by going along. You stand where you sit. There's no difference between two bobbing dolls and ten. The whole "global war on terror," while a crock, is US policy so the uniforms can be counted upon to essentially do one thing -- cry for more -- more troops, more money, more airplanes, more tanks, more submarines and aircraft carriers -- you name it, they'll ask for it. Clinton, McCain and Obama have already promised to give it to them so hold on to your wallets.

Admiral Mullen, if you read the transcripts of his press interviews is particularly weak. Currently, he doesn't know diddly about Basra. He's real strong on the bogus "GWOT" though: "The enemy now is basically evil and fundamentally hates everything we are -- the democratic principles for which we stand ... This war is going to go on for a long time. It's a generational war." He's a Bush clone.

This whole concept of listening to lackeys of the US administration and actually believing anything they say -- where did that come from? What's the basis for it? To those that believe in it, don't you realize you're being taken for a ride on the propaganda train? Is this the idea that is America?

The additional witnesses are a good idea, but for next week's hearings to make a difference the key element is the questioning.

Traditionally, legislators approach hearings the way the White House press corps approaches the daily gaggle; they each think up their own questions, often after having scanned the front page of the Post the morning of the hearing and sometimes as an afterthought to working out the statements they will make themselves (one inspirational, transformative Senator devoted all but one minute of his allotted time at last year's Petraeus hearing to making such a speech). Confronted with big, complex issues and witnesses determined to limit the amount of information they disclose before the assembled television cameras at the hearing, the only way this kind of questioning turns up anything important is by accident.

Questioning for next week's hearing must be coordinated to be effective. Lines of inquiry must be pursued, starting with senior Senators (and Congressmen) and continued as the relevant committee works its way down, with thought given beforehand to likely responses and questions to follow up those responses. This would be a really hard thing to do. Each legislator has only a very limited amount of time (typically five to ten minutes), and procedure calls for the two parties' members to alternate. This means that effective questioning would require committee members to forego most of their own statements and show discipline in maintaining lines of inquiry through frequent interruptions (for example, from Republican committee members, whose own questioning of Petraeus and Crocker is likely to be obsequious and directed away from the points Democrats should want to come out of these hearings).

I don't think anything like this will happen. I expect a replay of the last Crocker/Petraeus hearings, with a lot of uncoordinated noise from Congress and the administration's witnesses emerging as the stars of the show, able to get their message out exactly as they wanted to. All I'm saying is that, from the standpoint of legislators who aren't interested either in just getting a soundbite of their own on television or in backing up President Bush, a big hearing like this needs to be treated like a negotiation -- you don't start it without a reasonable idea of what you want, and some plan for getting it.

How about getting someone Joseph Stiglitz to testify, along with some experts on defense spending, domestic spending and the currently very worrisome US economic picture?

As Zathras says, questioning needs to be organized and coordinated to build a case, so to speak, for the benefit of the public. It would be very useful to see these legislators go through Iraq operational components item by item, and ask for clear summaries of past costs; descriptions of waste, fraud and abuse; and honest projections of future costs.

Of course, most of these guys are afraid to stick their necks out like that. But it would be very refreshing if at least one legislator showed an acute awareness of the fact that a massive operation like the Iraq War isn't just some sort of patriotic pageant, and that courses of action for the future are not just to be estimated in terms of the intrinsic merits of the outcomes they might or might not produce, but by balancing proposals with costs, including opportunity costs.

Perhaps the chief function of the Legislative Branch is figuring out how and where to spend government revenues. And yet it is damned hard to get these guys to take this responsibility seriously when it comes to one of these flag, fatherland and gore spectacles, and when they are sitting across from one of those Big Chiefs wearing lots of ribbons, feathers and pins. But we don't need these legislators to be little wannabe Washingtons or Marshalls right now; we need them to be hard-headed, pointy-headed, no nonsense accountants.

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