The drumrolls are over: The independent study groups have filed their reports, the President's surprise fact-finding visit to Baghdad is now a week old; the Administration's two lead witnesses will march through four days of testimony to Congress starting today at 12:30 p.m., and then, capping all the drama on Thursday night, President Bush will let the world know his "decision" about how to proceed.
It's all a bit of a charade. The President has had little or no intention of changing course since he adopted the surge strategy in January.
Certainly not this soon. The surge's architects had always imagined the U.S. offensive would take 18 months to work and maybe more. Bush officials bought themselves a lot of time (and margin) last winter by saying the surge might only last a few months and involve only 20,000 troops. But that was a snow job; it took five months just to get the troops into position, and a force of some 30,000 troops is involved now.
Congress was skeptical from the start and demanded a progress report after nine months. But the Bush Administration never intended to treat this checkpoint as a moment of decision; it has regarded it from the start merely as a speed bump.
But nine months have passed, so Gen. David Petraeus and Iraqi Ambassador Ryan Crocker will appear in Washington this week and, barring anything completely unforeseen, tell Congress that the surge should continue. The two men will differ in tone and emphasis; they will be praised for a few things and criticized for most everything else. A few days later, President Bush will speak in prime time to accept the Petraeus/Crocker conclusions that the surge has not yet run its course.
There isn't much the Congress, as it is currently configured, can do about that.
To help the medicine go down, there will be hints this week of symbolic troop reductions perhaps 5000 troops by Christmas and more talk of the unavoidable draw-down next spring, when the U.S. starts running out of rested and ready Army soldiers and Marines. But in the short term? Not much changes, largely because there's no consensus (at the White House, in Congress, in Iraq) about what should come after the surge. And that huge, inertial force works in the strategy's favor; you can't beat something with nothing.
If Democrats had more votes particularly in the House they might be able to force Bush to change course. But Bush will fight any resolution fencing him in with a veto that, as things stand now, the Democrats cannot override. But the President's critics will continue to try, hoping to attract moderate Republicans who are fearful of losing their seats next year.
So if the outcome is a foregone conclusion, what's left to listen for as these hearings unfold? Last week, in a little-noticed hearing in the House, former Pentagon chief William Perry suggested that lawmakers keep the larger strategic interests of the U.S. in mind when they consider the wisdom of the surge. His worry? That the U.S. is ignoring all sorts of other strategic interests and opportunities around the globe with its single-minded focus on Iraq. So Perry urged lawmakers to put five big questions to Petraeus and Crocker:
1. Since the surge began earlier this year, how well has the Iraqi government used the breathing space it provided?
2. How much longer will the coalition forces be needed to providing breathing space for the government?
3. In order to achieve American goals in Iraq, how much longer will American forces be needed at or near present levels in Iraq?
4. Is the readiness level of American contingency forces today adequate to meet plausible contingencies?
5. If present or near-present levels of troops are needed in 2008 in Iraq, how will the replacement forces be provided and what will that do to the readiness levels of our contingency forces?
Perry is surely right that Washington needs to take global interests in consideration when it ponders the next move in Iraq. But don't expect such a reevaluation to translate into practical results anytime soon. The most likely date is Election Day 2008.