By Fred W. Baker III
American Forces Press Service
April 9, 2008 - U.S. Rep. Howard L. Berman has a gavel, and he's not afraid to use it. At the fourth appearance in front of a congressional audience by the United States' top military commander and envoy to Iraq, Berman, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, cut to the chase. Already, Army Gen. David H. Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker had both seen more than 12 hours of combined testimony before the start of their final appearance on Capitol Hill this afternoon.
Berman asked for only a summary of their previous testimony so the committee members could get straight to their questions on security in Iraq, the strength of its government and when, or if, U.S. troops could come home for good.
At the start, Berman warned his committee members that they had only five minutes each, and that included the time for the witnesses' responses. He wanted the meat of the message, not political statements.
"I intend to use the gavel at the five-minute mark exactly," Berman said. "In other words, a member can use his or her time to give a speech or to question the witnesses, but no back-loading – no four-and-a-half-minute speech, with then the questions coming. The witnesses will not be answering those kinds of questions."
Petraeus, in his Army dress uniform with his general's stars shining under the television lights, and Crocker, in a dark business suit with red tie, delivered abbreviated prepared statements, and submitted for the record their full, pages-long descriptions of the conditions and predictions in Iraq.
Each committee member started out complimentary thanking Petraeus and Crocker for their service and sacrifice. But with the time constraints on each question and answer, they were forced to go straight for the jugular on the issues behind the war.
"How do get out of this mess is the real question. How do you fix it?" asked Rep. Gary Ackerman. "How do you know we've won?"
Crocker fielded the response, saying it's a question he and Petraeus ask themselves constantly.
"It's through asking that question and answering it on a localized basis that it is possible, in our judgment, to execute the redeployments that are currently under way," he said. "And I think that that will continue to be the answer. It's going to be not one grand sweeping moment in which we can say it's all fixed, but it's going to be area by area, circumstance by circumstance. It is complicated. It will continue to be complicated, but I think it's doable."
Rep. Donald Payne asked pointedly, "How many years and what cost and -- in your opinion, can we continue to sustain the financial cost in addition to the tremendous human cost?"
Crocker responded, "I believe that we and the Iraqis are making progress, that the trajectory is moving up in the areas I described in my statement and that I believe that the consequences, the cost, if you will, of major failure in Iraq are so great that the two together require us to keep going."
Rep. Dan Burton said he wanted 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.'"
Crocker gave a grim estimation of the consequences.
"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," Crocker said.
More questions swirled around the floor addressing Iraq's excess oil reserves, and why America was footing the bill for their reconstruction.
America is out of the construction business there and Iraq is assuming responsibility for its own construction, was the reply.
Would Petraeus begin drawing up plans to withdraw troops if a new president was elected who wanted an expeditious withdrawal?
"Congressman, I can only serve one boss at a time, and I can only execute one policy at a time," the general replied. "We execute the mission that we have at that time."
Is there anything in the status of forces agreement that would prevent the next president from pulling troops out?"
"In a word, no," Crocker said.
Should the United States look for more support from other allies? There is an ongoing effort to do that now, was the response.
But the answer to the million-dollar question came in response to an emotional plea from Rep. Robert Wexler.
Last week, in anticipation of the testimony, Wexler sent an e-mail to his constituents asking what they wanted to know from the general and the ambassador. Five thousand people responded, he said. Many highlighted the troops' bravery, he said, but most responses boiled down to one question.
"What is the definition of winning? What would a military victory look like that was sufficient enough to allow us to begin leaving?" he asked.
"Please tell us, general, what is winning?" Wexler pleaded.
"First of all ... let me tell you that what we are fighting for is national interests. It is interests that ... have to do with al-Qaida, a sworn enemy of the United States and the free world. It has to do with the possible spread of sectarian conflict in Iraq, a conflict that had engulfed that country and had it on the brink of civil war. It has to do with regional stability of a region that is of critical importance to the global economy. And it has to do with certainly the influence of Iran, another obviously very important element in that region," the general said.
Petraeus said officials want to see Iraq as a country that is at peace with itself and its neighbors and capable of defending itself. It needs a government that is reasonably representative and broadly responsive to its citizens. The country needs to be involved in and engaged in the global economy, he said.
But, in the end, the general and the ambassador are looking for small steps of progress in the country. Steps that would eventually see an end to a large U.S. troop presence in the country.
"Ambassador Crocker and I, for what it's worth, have typically seen ourselves as minimalists. We're not after the holy grail on Iraq; we're not after Jeffersonian democracy," Petraeus said. "We're after conditions that would allow our soldiers to disengage."