Few see Petraeus testimony changing much in Congress

Baghdad on Monday.
Baghdad on Monday. Hadi Mizban / AP

WASHINGTON — Army Gen. David Petraeus' congressional testimony this week is likely to generate plenty of sound, fury and analysis in Washington, but not much change in America's policy in Iraq.

The Democrats who control the Senate and the House of Representatives may threaten to put restrictions on the next round of war funding. Some may try to impose timetables for withdrawal.

They'll probably quiz Petraeus on his opinions about those strategies when the U.S. commander in Iraq testifies before two Senate committees Tuesday and appears before House panels on Wednesday.

But Democrats' efforts to change policy dramatically this year are unlikely to go far, for several reasons:

  • The American public isn't sure of the exit strategy it wants. Polls show that while the war is overwhelmingly unpopular, there's still no consensus on how to end it.
  • The general election that will choose the next president and control of the Congress is only seven months away. Democrats figure it's probably worth waiting. Buoyed by polls, party leaders see a profitable election ahead, a year when they could even win the magic 60 Senate seats needed to cut off a Senate filibuster.
  • U.S. policy in Iraq is now more closely identified with Petraeus than it is with President Bush, his administration or the Republican Party, a perception that the White House has promoted by nourishing reports that the president relies more on the general for promoting advice about Iraq than he does on Petraeus' superiors.
  • Although his strategy of sending more U.S. troops to Iraq has suffered some recent setbacks, Petraeus remains a popular figure whose popularity was buoyed in part by a liberal group's attack on his name as "General Betray Us."
  • A new Pew Research Center poll, taken March 24-29, however, found that most people were unfamiliar with the general. Among those who were, however, 27 percent viewed him favorably compared with 18 percent unfavorably, which suggests that if he comes across as reasonable in this week's hearings, it may be hard for some politicians to oppose him.

    "He can clarify the policy he supports, and show that, at least in the commander's eyes, he does not see a prolonged combat role," said Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at Washington's center-left Brookings Institution.

  • It's not in most politicians' political interests to switch sides now, given the mixed progress Petraeus is expected to report.
  • Calling for change risks charges of opportunism. New York Sen. Hillary Clinton is still dogged by many antiwar activists — not to mention rival Illinois Sen. Barack Obama — for her 2002 vote to give President Bush broad authority to wage war.

    "Right now everyone is sort of in an endgame," said John Fortier, research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, "so you're going to keep seeing a reiteration of the reasons people are for or against the war."

    Democrats "can talk about it a lot, and they've done that, and I think they think that is beneficial to them," Minority Whip Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., said of the war and the troop surge. "But the only thing that's really changed, I believe, is that the facts on the ground have gotten better."

    For that reason, Kyl said, and because the economy is becoming a more salient issue in the upcoming presidential elections, Democrats may invest less energy in debating how to get troops out and more in shifting war dollars to domestic priorities.

    "I really resent it," Kyl said, offering the Republicans' rhetorical response: "In a sense, it's a blackmail using our troops and their requirements as a hostage."

    Democrats don't see it that way, and with their leadership's blessing, many are angling to use the Pentagon's request for $102.5 billion in supplemental war funding as leverage to squeeze out more billions in funding for domestic priorities. Everything from economic stimulus plans and welfare spending to local projects may be on the table.

    House and Senate debates over supplemental funding could begin next month. Regularly budgeted war funding for the remainder of the fiscal year could run out sometime over the summer. But lawmakers expect that sufficient supplemental funds will be approved before continuing operations are put at risk.

    Even so, expect plenty of debate about priorities.

    Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., a senior Senate Armed Services Committee member, said that Americans "are right to question why we continue to write a blank check to the Iraqi government instead of focusing more of our budget on American families struggling with the high cost of gas, groceries and a slumping economy."

    Added House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.: "To have a new direction in America, we need a new direction in Iraq."

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