Petraeus Under Heavy Fire

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Brooks Kraft / Corbis for TIME

General David Petraeus testifies on the future course of the war in Iraq.

It took three hearings before General David Petraeus finally got asked the most important question: Is the Iraq war, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee inquired at Tuesday afternoon's session, "making America safer?" Petraeus, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, was uncharacteristically uncertain. "Sir," he said, "I don't know, actually." For many watching, that answer was a stark indictment of the Bush Administration's conduct of the war over the past four years, and the logic behind it. It may also have been taken as a slap in the face by family members of the 3,774 Americans who have made the ultimate sacrifice in this conflict.

But more critical than Petraeus' unsettling answer was the questioner — G.O.P. Senator John Warner of Virginia, who recently announced his impending retirement after 30 years in the Senate. Earlier in his career, Warner had served as a Marine and as Navy secretary. While the courtly Virginian didn't react openly to Petraeus' answer, it plainly marked yet another demerit in the book of those lawmakers increasingly careful in weighing their support for the war.

The exchange came during the general's second hearing Tuesday — the first had been before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee — and the third of the week for both Petraeus and Ryan Crocker, U.S. ambassador to Baghdad. The Senate is the preeminent chamber on foreign affairs and national security (remember, its members have to ratify international treaties and confirm secretaries of state and defense), and so, in contrast to the House a day earlier, much of the nearly 10 hours of Senators' questioning was tough and to the point: What is the mission of the U.S. military in Iraq, the Senators wanted to know. And given the inability of Petraeus and Crocker to articulate that mission — or say when it will end — the lawmakers questioned whether the nation should continue investing in this war. Petraeus said to try and predict an end date "would be doing a disservice to our soldiers." He later said that under current plans, he expects at least 60 U.S. troops to be killed each month through next July — some 600 in all — and that he believes the mission warrants that toll. Crocker took pains not to set any false hopes. "I think in the past we have set some expectations that simply couldn't be met," he said. "I'm trying not to do that."

Tuesday's hearings also gave five presidential candidates (Biden, Clinton, Dodd, McCain and Obama) a chance to flex their commander-in-chief bona fides, not to mention a couple of also-rans (Kerry and Lieberman). "I think that the reports that you provide to us really require the willing suspension of disbelief," Senator Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., told the witnesses. "Any of the metrics that have been referenced in your many hours of testimony, any fair reading of the advantages and disadvantages accruing post-surge, in my view, end up on the down side." But Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, betrayed none of Petraeus' hesitancy when he spoke of the stakes in Iraq. "The choices that we make now, whether to build on the success of the surge and fight for additional gains," he said, "or whether to set a date for American surrender in Iraq, will affect the security of all our countrymen for decades to come."

When Petraeus offered the good news that he soon would order a 2,000-Marine unit home, Senator Biden, the Delaware Democrat at the helm of the foreign relations session, noted that the unit was simply coming to the end of its scheduled combat tour. "They are scheduled to come out," Petraeus conceded, "but I could have easily requested an extension of them."

By Tuesday's end, it was becoming clear that Congress is not impressed by President Bush's plan, in a Thursday night address to the nation, to embrace Petraeus' proposal to reduce the 160,000-troop contingent currently in Iraq to 130,000 by next August. And it was not only Democrats asking the questions suggesting that remaining in Iraq was futile. "The greatest risk for United States policy is not that we are incapable of making progress, but that this progress may be largely beside the point, given the divisions that now afflict Iraqi society," said Senator Richard Lugar, the Indiana Republican. "Some type of success in Iraq is possible, but as policymakers, we should acknowledge that we are facing extraordinarily narrow margins for achieving our goals." Nebraska Republican Charles Hagel noted "some very bright-line contradictions" between what Petraeus and Crocker were saying, on the one hand, and a plethora of more dire reports from assorted U.S. agencies on the other. "Is it worth it," he asked, "the continued investment of American blood and treasure?"

Senator John Kerry, D-Mass., took a glance backward. The Vietnam vet likened Petraeus' testimony to that of William Westmoreland, the Army general who told Congress in 1967 that things were getting better in Southeast Asia. Not since then, he said, has a U.S. general played such an important role in the making of U.S. national-security strategy. "But," he added, "almost half the names that found their way to the Vietnam wall after that testimony found their way there when our leaders had acknowledged, in retrospect, that they knew the policy was not working."