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Posturing at the Petraeus Hearings

In 1972, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee took detailed testimony from Secretary of State William P. Rogers about the continuing war in Indochina.

As a junior staffer for Sen. Jacob K. Javits (R-N.Y.), I watched committee chairman J. William Fulbright (D-Ark.) grill Rogers – almost literally.

Fulbright constantly prompted Rogers with fact after fact that his answers were incomplete or one-sided.

Fulbright knew all the facts, uncovered by an assiduous professional staff that discovered a whole lot more than what the Defense and State departments wanted them to know.

The situation became embarrassing for Rogers. At the end of the hearing, the secretary of state and his gaggle of staff filed past me in the audience seats.

They were not happy; one in the entourage turned angrily to an underling and hissed to him within my earshot, “Find out how that son of a b–h found all that out.”

That’s oversight.

Now consider four-star Army Gen. David Petraeus’ recent appearances before House and Senate committees to issue his report on military progress in Iraq.

When Petraeus and his entourage filed out of the hearings, no one was frowning, no one was hissing.

You could almost see their secret smiles. Despite considerable preening for the cameras by members of both parties, there was precious little actual oversight to fact check the general’s statements and assertions.

The Democrats didn’t do their homework. They didn’t even try; they may not know how.

Nothing better explains the Democrats’ failure to win over a single new Republican vote in the Senate on measures to draw down troops, such as on an amendment by Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) to increase fighting men and women’s time at home.

Also, a proposal by Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) to set a specific withdrawal deadline won less than a third of the Senate.

After Petraeus’ testimony, there is no stomach among Republicans to join Democrats in any substantive effort to retard the war in any manner, shape or form.

Most on Capitol Hill will cite two reasons: the overreaching, intemperate ad placed by MoveOn.org in The New York Times, attacking Petraeus as “General Betray Us,” and Petraeus’ calmly delivered set of facts and assertions that the surge in Iraq could just be working.

With some real progress, perhaps even a chance for triumph, what politician wants to be accused of seizing withdrawal from the jaws of victory – especially when the medal-bedecked advocate is being slandered by political operatives?

While MoveOn’s hyperbolic gambit undoubtedly helped Petraeus, the greater key to his success was his performance during his testimony.

With apparent sincerity, he cited various encouraging data on sectarian violence, enemy attacks and other measures, thus creating the aura of data-based conclusions and recommendations.

A small number of Democratic questioners and the Government Accountability Office quibbled with some of his facts, but no one did any palpable damage to his arguments.

After two long days of questions, answers and speeches – mostly speeches – Petraeus’ version of the facts commanded the political battlefield. From there, the only allowable conclusion was obvious: Give the surge a chance.

Information from the United Nations, multiple independent research organizations (such as icasualties.org and the Iraq Body Count) and The Associated Press – the best data publicly available – all dispute Petraeus and his optimism.

Worse, new polling data from the only people who really know if they are safer, Iraqi civilians, present a compelling case that almost everything, especially security, is worse in Iraq, not better.

(The case is compellingly made in an anonymous insider’s analysis distributed by the project I direct at the Center for Defense Information.)

The data were available to members of Congress before the Petraeus hearings; a few senators and representatives even made use of them. However, they employed the data only as a prop for their carefully scripted speeches and, in a very few cases, actual questions to the general, which he pretty much ignored.

All that was politicking, not oversight.

Oversight is the most important thing Congress does – or, rather, should be doing. It means finding out exactly what the executive branch is doing and what is going on in the world.

Only that, not posturing, provides a sound foundation for competent legislation and the political coalitions needed to enact it.

Put simply, if you do not know with some precision what the problem is, you are not going to solve it. And if you don’t have the data, mere rhetoric will not always save you, especially when you fail to refute the opposing case.

WINSLOW T. WHEELER is the Director of the Straus Military Reform Project of the Center for Defense Information and author of The Wastrels of Defense. Over 31 years, he worked for US Senators from both political parties and the Government Accountability Office on national security issues.

 

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Winslow T. Wheeler is the Director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Project on Government Oversight.  He spent 31 years working for the Government Accountability Office and both Republican and Democratic Senators on national security issues.

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