Baghdad? Can You Hear Me Now?

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Like the Iraq war itself, Thursday's hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee featuring U.S. ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker didn't go quite as planned. But this time, instead of insurgents and militias, the problem was a lousy video-link connection from Baghdad on which Crocker was to testify.

Those gathered in the Senate hearing room had no trouble hearing the lengthy opening statement from the famously verbose Democratic chairman, Joseph Biden from Delaware. Ranking Republican Richard Lugar of Indiana also was quite loquacious. Then Crocker began speaking over a connection breaking up: " a meeting with...the President' this stage...not only to...benchmarks but to develop...of the particular would be...," Crocker said, according to the Federal News Service, which transcribes most official Washington briefings and many congressional hearings.

After answering a couple of questions more clearly, more static blurred his next answer: "The Iraqi army...for example, as well as well as the coalition...long-standing. So yes...are important in understanding...Iraqi politics, but it's much more than that," Crocker said.

When the communication link totally broke down, Biden broke in. "I don't know what all this means, folks, but hang on — stay tuned," he said. "Our staff is on the phone with the technology experts, trying to fix this. We may — you may be getting back up quickly here. We'll see." After some feverish knob-turning and switch flipping by the staff, Biden spoke up again. "Ambassador Crocker, can you hear me? Because even if we don't have visual, we — if we have audio — I'm told we may still have audio. Is that — no, we don't have audio. Hang on a second."

Suddenly, that robotic message known to all conference callers filled the room: "You are the first person to join the conference," it said. More tinkering was done. "Baghdad, can you hear the U.S. Senate?" the chairman asked vainly. "Say it another way: Ambassador Crocker, can you hear Joe Biden?" There was no response. "They obviously can't hear," Biden finally said. "We're going to recess for somewhere between three and five minutes to see if we can set this up, and then we'll come back and figure out where we go, if we can."

Finally, after a break, the committee scrapped the video conference and reverted to the tried-and-true speakerphone. That's when Lugar asked Crocker if he has been involved in any planning to redeploy U.S. troops in Iraq as part of a "Plan B" that would allow Washington to begin pulling U.S. forces out of the country. Lugar expressed concern over reports "that such integrated planning, interagency planning, was being retarded by high-level political pressures in the United States and therefore had been abandoned."

The audio came in loud and clear. "I'm fully engaged," Crocker said, "in trying to implement the President's strategy that was announced in January. From this vantage point, sir, I can't speak to an interagency process. If there are advantages of being in Baghdad, it's having to deal with things in an Iraqi context and letting the interagency [process] take care of itself." It was a surprising statement: The Administration that, by all accounts, didn't adequately plan for its invasion and occupation of Iraq, is likewise failing to plan for the all-but-inevitable withdrawal, at least in terms of consulting with the top diplomat in the country.