WASHINGTON — They sat behind burgundy-covered witness tables for more than 16 hours of testimony and answered hundreds of questions about the Iraq war, some of them pointed, some of them softballs.
But there was one question that Army Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. military commander in Iraq, and Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador in Baghdad, couldn't, or wouldn't, answer.
It was the question that Petraeus himself posed rhetorically back in 2003 when he led the Army's 101st Airborne Division into Iraq: "Tell me how this ends."
Much to the frustration of the senators — mostly Democrats, but including a few Republicans — who grilled them Tuesday, neither the general nor the diplomat outlined a strategy for putting Iraq back together or a timetable for bringing U.S. troops home.
Four and a half years after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq — and four years after some Pentagon officials thought American troops would be home in triumph — two days of breathlessly anticipated testimony by Petraeus and Crocker appear to have produced another stalemate in Washington.
Democrats in Congress don't have enough votes to force a withdrawal from Iraq. The Bush administration can only offer the hope of slow progress in Iraq and an eventual, but undefined, U.S. withdrawal.
In response to a question from Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., Petraeus predicted that 100,000 American troops would still be in Iraq a year from now.
"Two years from now, in the summer of 2009, we're still going to have 80,000 troops on the ground in Iraq," predicted one State Department official, who requested anonymity in order to speak frankly. "We knew that pretty much already. Now it's done."
But lawmakers complained that neither Petraeus nor Crocker could explain how the Iraq war fits into Bush's war on terror or how it's protecting Americans.
One of the most jaw-dropping moments in the hours of back-and-forth came when retiring Sen. John Warner, R-Va., asked Petraeus whether his proposal for Iraq — including a reduction of U.S. troops to pre-surge levels of 130,000 — would make the United States safer.
"Sir, I don't know, actually," Petraeus replied.
In military jargon, Petraeus and Crocker are "walking point" for the White House on Iraq, taking the brunt of the questions from Congress and the media. Much of what President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, former Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and others have said about Iraq has turned out to be false, but the general and the ambassador showed up with their credibility largely intact.
The president kept a low profile Monday and Tuesday, but he's expected to announce in a prime-time address Thursday that he's adopting Petraeus' troop recommendations.
Petraeus has been praised for his knowledge of counterinsurgency tactics and Crocker for his knowledge of the Arab world. Both are implementing a strategy that some analysts think might have worked if it had been tried years ago.
Petraeus "is almost certainly the right man for the job in Iraq, but he's the right person three years too late and 250,000 troops short," Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo., said as the sessions began Monday morning.
Neither man, however, has been able to answer Petraeus' original question: How does the Iraq war end?
"Are we going to continue to invest American blood and treasure at the same rate we are doing now, for what? The president said let's buy time. Buy time? For what?" said Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., a Vietnam veteran who also will retire next year.
Most experts argue that stabilizing Iraq requires two things above all: political reconciliation among Shiite Muslims, Sunnis and Kurds, and Iraqi security forces that can stand on their own.
Petraeus and Crocker could promise neither.
Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., asked Crocker whether ethnic reconciliation is likely in the 16 months that Bush has left in office.
"Senator, I could not put a timeline on it or a target date," Crocker replied. There are "hopeful signs," he said, but "how long that is going to take and, frankly, even ultimately whether it will succeed, I can't predict."
Petraeus tacitly acknowledged that Iraqi forces aren't ready to take over security, warning that an early drawdown of U.S. forces in Iraq would jeopardize what he said were improved security conditions brought about by the surge.
Petraeus cited an Aug. 16 Defense Intelligence Agency report on the implications of a rapid U.S. withdrawal from Iraq that underscored the point. The results of an American exodus, the DIA concluded, would include "a high risk of disintegration of the Iraqi security forces, rapid deterioration of local security initiatives, al Qaida Iraq regaining lost ground and freedom of maneuver, a marked increase in violence and further ethnosectarian displacement and refugee flows," Petraeus said.
Looked at another way, however, the DIA report underscores how, four and a half years after Bush invaded Iraq, nothing has been achieved that wouldn't be swept away as soon as the United States leaves.
Senators were left to splutter, angrily but impotently, at the lack of answers.
"How long will it take?" asked Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif.
Late in the afternoon, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, asked Petraeus and Crocker what they'd recommend if, a year from now, the Iraqis have still failed to make significant political progress.
Ever the diplomat, Crocker, who was somber, if not downright dour, throughout the two days, replied: "I can't say what I'll be seeing a year or even six months from now, but I can say that I will make the same honest assessment I made for this testimony."
Asked by at least two senators what he'd recommend if things are unchanged a year from now, Petraeus replied: "I would be very hard-pressed to recommend a continuation."
(Nancy A. Youssef contributed.)