KWAME HOLMAN: Last September, Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker sat before a joint meeting of the House Armed Services and Foreign Affairs Committees for a sometimes raucous and partisan day-long session.
Today, they met the committees separately, and the mood was subdued this morning at the Armed Services Committee on the fifth anniversary of the fall of Baghdad.
Democratic Chairman Ike Skelton asserted the Iraq war itself had become a national security risk.
REP. IKE SKELTON (D), Mo.: This nation’s facing record deficits, and the Iraqis have translated their oil revenues into budget surpluses rather than effective services. Under these circumstances and with a strategic risk to our nation and our military readiness, we and the American people must ask: Why should we stay in Iraq in large numbers?
KWAME HOLMAN: But California’s Duncan Hunter, the senior Republican on the committee and an unflinching war supporter, argued last year’s troop increase had achieved its desired effect.
REP. DUNCAN HUNTER (R), Cali.: And it was 15 months ago when the president announced the surge. And even before — even a few days after it had been announced, some members of Congress were declaring failure of this increase in American forces going into country.
And yet I think, by all metrics, it’s been a success. And I’m reminded that in Anbar province, where you had, by some accounts and by some statistics, the most dangerous of situations, the situation is extremely benign.
KWAME HOLMAN: Petraeus and Crocker repeated the same opening statements they had prepared for their Senate appearances yesterday, citing security gains and some political reconciliation among the Iraqis.
But South Carolina’s John Spratt, chairman of the Budget Committee, returned to the enormous financial outlays afforded to fight the war.
REP. JOHN SPRATT (D), S.C.: The total cost from the ’09 through 2018 will come to about $1 trillion. If you add this $1 trillion for the out-year costs to the $608 billion already appropriated, the total comes to about $1.6 trillion.
And if you adjust that for debt service — and we are borrowing every dime of this, so you may as well add the interest to it — it’s well over $2 trillion. Is this something that you two will weigh in your consideration as to what we should do for our continued deployment?
GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS, commander, U.S. forces in Iraq: Absolutely, Congressman. In fact, as I mentioned in my statement, that is one of the major strategic considerations that I offered.
KWAME HOLMAN: Alabama Republican Terry Everett said the focus should be on the human toll exacted by terrorism.
REP. TERRY EVERETT (R), Ala.: If we’re going to look at that $1 trillion, then we probably should also ask at the same time, how much is 3,000 lives worth? How much is 30,000 lives worth?
We’ve all agreed that we’re fighting an enemy that is determined to kill Americans, and they will continue to kill Americans. They’ve been killing Americans for 20, 25 years prior to 9/11.
War losing public support
KWAME HOLMAN: Ellen Tauscher, a San Francisco-area Democrat, reminded the witnesses of the widespread public disaffection with the war in her district and across the country. She asked Petraeus how he'd advise a president who would want the war brought to a close.
REP. ELLEN TAUSCHER (D), Calif.: On January 21st of 2009, if you report to a commander-in-chief that says that they want a plan for the withdrawal of troops in the next 60 days, what will you advise them?
GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS: Well, what I would sit down, first, Congressman, is I'd try to back up and ask what the mission is. What are the objectives? What's the desired end state? With an understanding of that mission, then you can state what resources are required.
REP. ELLEN TAUSCHER: General, if the mission is to maintain the security gains as best we have made during the surge, but to bring our troops home so that they can rest, re-train and be redeployable, and we can fix our readiness problems, and cut the amount of money that we're spending in Iraq -- which is $600 billion now, going to well over $1 trillion in the future -- what would your response be?
GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS: My response would be dialogue on what the risk would be, again, and this is about risk. At the end of the day, let me just state upfront I absolutely support the principle of civilian control of the military. We're not self-employed in uniform. We take orders, and we follow them.
But what we want to do, of course, is to have dialogue within the chain of command about what the mission is, what the desired end state is, the objectives and so forth, then be able to provide the assessment of a commander on the ground of what we believe the resources are required.If they're less than that, you know, this is the risk to various elements. And then it is up to other folks to determine where they want to take the risk.
Iraq in context of U.S. elections
KWAME HOLMAN: Both men faced similar questions from members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee this afternoon. Chairman Howard Berman of California directed his at Ambassador Crocker.
REP. HOWARD BERMAN (D), Calif.: The American people will decide the future direction of our troop presence in Iraq for themselves this November. They may very well decide in favor of a presidential candidate who favors a relatively rapid withdrawal of our troops from Iraq.
Just as there are consequences and costs negative in pursuing our current strategy, there will be consequences of such a withdrawal, some of them potentially very negative. How do we minimize those consequences?
RYAN CROCKER, U.S. ambassador to Iraq: I can't predict what the conditions will be in January 2009. They could be substantially different, and they could warrant substantial reductions of forces.
But still, in my view, it would be taking into account an assessment of the conditions and then making recommendations accordingly.
KWAME HOLMAN: Indiana Republican Dan Burton also framed his question around the upcoming election.
REP. DAN BURTON (R), Ind.: I want to know and the American people really want to know, what would happen if we, with a new president, said, "We're going to jerk everybody out of there in six months"? And the American people want to know this, because right now the war is very unpopular, and the American people want to know the facts before we pick the next president.
RYAN CROCKER: I did say that, if we were to decide that we just do not want to be engaged in this anymore, if we make a precipitous change in our conditions-based approach, that we could risk failure in Iraq. And I talked about what some of those consequences could be, including a base in the Arab world for al-Qaida.
REP. DAN BURTON: I don't want to put words in your mouth, but I want to make sure we understand. If there was a precipitous pull-out within a period of time -- let's say four, five, six months -- a vacuum would be created and al-Qaida would be the beneficiary, if they were aggressive, along with Iran's help, to make that a base of operation for expanded terrorism around the world?
RYAN CROCKER: My judgment is that, where conditions are at this time, that you would see a spiral down, and that would lead to expanded sectarian conflict at levels we probably have not seen before. It would bring the neighbors, especially Iran, into the fight. And it would create space for al-Qaida to root itself on Arab soil.
KWAME HOLMAN: Tomorrow, President Bush is expected to publicly endorse General Petraeus' plan, which could keep 140,000 troops in Iraq through the fall presidential election.