Now that Gen. David Petraeus has been heard, heckled, challenged and dissected, it's worth asking why he was the guy out on political Front Street at all.
Sure, Petraeus carries the Iraq command, as well as four stars on his shoulder and a heavy rack of medals on his chest.
He's also smart, cool and prepared, with the authority of the guy who wrote the Army's counterinsurgency doctrine.
But President Bush still outranks him. Like it or not, Petraeus is merely the latest fall guy to whom the White House has handed off its Iraq mess.
The actual authors of this disaster -- the ones who should be facing the music and framing the response -- are content to let the general take the heat. (Where have we heard this story before?) When President Bush steps forward this evening to speak to the nation, it will not be to lay out the hard, bad news and then admit the uncertainties, and constraints, as Petraeus just did.
It will be to present the Petraeus small view -- of Baghdad and Anbar province -- as if it were the administration's large view of How to Win a War. It will be to take the fragments of American military successes that one would expect from such a competent team on the ground, and to extrapolate them into a false vision and a strategy that somehow can omit the critical components of Iraqi dissolution and al-Qaida's resurgence elsewhere.
Yet no matter how happily the White House hides behind Petraeus' decent but incomplete exposition of American options, its limitations are showing.
Petraeus valiantly tries to make pie out of others' mincemeat, but the putrid nature of that mincemeat doesn't change.
His charts convey a portion of the Iraq reality but they don't capture it all. His presentation glossed over how much of southern Iraq has fallen into the vise of Iranian-linked militias and warlords. U.S. Army attempts to quantify violence don't even attempt to measure such Shiite-on-Shiite violence, the latest retail outlet for Iraqi suffering.
The sad truth is that, now that America finally has a decent team on the ground, it has arrived too late to do much good. Suffocating recent gains are the past mistakes, military manpower strains and Iraq's own implosion not just into ethnic fiefs, but also into vast networks of organized crime gangs and mini-protectorates of Iran, with al-Qaida bomb-throwers still streaming in from some Arab nations.
Even worse, Petraeus just talked himself blue with specifics at a time when politicians aren't interested in the details.
America's own debate on Iraq is a caricature of itself. Republicans rushed to slap Petraeus on the back, thinking he'd offered them another year's worth of political cover. Democrats scrambled to pick apart his testimony while acting as if they thought he was a swell guy.
Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was shocked -- SHOCKED! -- at the idea that some U.S. troops might have to stay in Iraq a very long time to keep it from becoming Tehran west or al-Qaida south -- as if this were a stunning new notion the White House had dreamed up to afflict her, instead of a possibility the president simply has been reluctant to spell out.
Sadly, no one in the White House is spelling out or dreaming up anything much these days.
It would be far better if they were.
The U.S. military may be doing its job, but the Iraqi leadership has no clothes, apart from those hanging in its hidden, sectarian wardrobe.
It would require a real shakeup in U.S. policy and approach, and a far more assertive Oval Office, to alter Iraqi perceptions enough to hope to force even modest political change in Baghdad. Failing that -- and we are failing that -- the race to control Iraq's oil wealth is in full stride, and Iraq will continue to fracture along sectarian lines, without the political honesty and stamina in Washington to do much of anything about it. Sullivan is The Plain Dealer's foreign-affairs columnist and an associate editor of the editorial pages. To reach Elizabeth Sullivan firstname.lastname@example.org
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