After working on capitol Hill for three deades, I didn't expect much for today's hearing at the Senate Armed Services Committee with General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker. I was not disappointed. My comments follow:
The Best and the Worst of Congressional Theater
There Really Is No Difference
By Winslow T. Wheeler
It does not get any better than this – quite literally. And, that is the pity of it.
I have just finished watching the four and a half hour gala of the Senate Armed Services Committee “questioning” General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker, America’s high commissioners for Iraq. The hearing was greatly bally-hooed as a major Washington event on the war in Iraq – to say nothing of the significance it held for the two presidential candidates on the committee, Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Hilary Clinton (D-NY), and their opportunity to impress us all as ready to raise a right hand to swear a new oath of office.
The hearing left nothing to disappoint. It had all the panoply of a modern congressional hearing and what we have come to expect from senators confronting important witnesses. We saw –
* Speeches parading as questions.
Senator Kennedy had lots of competition, but he was the leader of this pack. He read off a long pre-prepared statement about his stalwart opposition to the war, and prefaced the thing he was pretending was a question with “Americans want to know…” – a dead give-away that no real question was to follow.
* Staff prepared questions read off, again and again; no matter what the answer.
Senator Daniel Akaka (D-HI) read off several questions, barely waiting for the answer before he read off the next one. At one point he got an amazing answer: General Petraeus said that “the Army would be best to answer” Akaka’s staffer’s question about whether troops only get six months of “quality time” with their families before going back to the war in Iraq. Seeming to not note General Petraeus’ Army affiliation, Akaka moved on to another question. Petraeus, finding success with the “ask the Army, not me” response, gave it again.
* Asking a non-question and sternly demanding a specific response.
Here we must honor the Committee’s chairman, Carl Levin (D-MI). Being the first to ask anything, he bored in on the recent fiasco of the Iraqi army collapsing in the face of Shi’a militias in Basra. Taking note of the obvious, he insisted on a “direct answer” to his question whether the Iraqi army had properly planned and prepared for their operations. Successfully hiding from public notice what, if any, great concession he thought he was extracting from General Petraeus when he agreed that they could have been better prepared, Levin left this battlefield of the minds and moved on to asking something entirely different.
* Platitudes pretending to be questions.
Senator Sessions (R-AL) was the specialist in this line. He skillfully coupled several platitudes (“extraordinary sacrifice,” “defining moment,” “just magnificent American military”) to ask Petraeus about the prospects for success. Petraeus, to his credit, gave him a nothing answer.
* Failure-to-launch oversight.
Senator Clinton, gave what she must have thought was the obligatory speech to demonstrate her vast experience in national security (and stating her support for the troops). Then, surprisingly, she came dangerously close to asking a real question and exercising what Congress holds these hearings for – oversight. After reading off some staff pre-drafted questions on what conditions would permit withdrawal – not that she had any of her own – she asked a question she clearly came to by herself. She noted she heard Petraeus intimate earlier in the hearing that the US might have had its own plans for military operations in Basra before Maliki’s fiasco was launched. (Gad Zooks! A member of the Senate Armed Services Committee who spent a least some time listening to the witness before it was his/her turn.) Almost seeming caught off guard with a non-scripted, non-fluff ball question, Petraeus gave a very vague non-answer, but it seemed to confirm Clinton’s query. But then, Clinton utterly failed to follow up and to nail down the first real information the hearing threatened to reveal. Seeming to be almost relieved that her time was expired, she didn’t even ask for permission to ask a simple follow up – not even in writing. Nor did she stick around for a second round of questions; nor did she get any of her colleagues who followed her to follow up. So much for all that vast experience on how to get government working and straightening out the national security mess.
If that call ever comes at 3:00 in the morning, will anybody be home?
* Studied posing as president-to-be.
Senator McCain’s people did a better job preparing him for this non-hearing than did Clinton’s. McCain’s questions – all designed to elicit responses about how right he has always been about Iraq – were asked in a studied monotone with an air of seeming legitimate inquiry. There was none of the usual harsh, lecturing tone – directed at either the witness or other senators – that is the typical McCain hearing performance. Clearly, he knew he was on stage to show “presidential-ality,” and he did as well as John McCain ever will on that dimension. He also – he surely thought – scored big points with the cooperative witness agreeing with every nuance of McCain’s grasp for omniscience about the catastrophe he helped to stage and now wants to extend.
There was much more (Collins [R-ME] reading off questions designed to position herself safely with both opponents and supporters of the war; Inhofe [R-OK] making sure everyone knew he had been to an Iraqi veteran’s funeral; Warner [R-VA] giving Petraeus a second shot at a question he had flubbed when he testified to Congress last September; and Lieberman [D-CT] aping reasonableness by trying to get “everybody to agree on the facts” – his facts, that is), but the undoubted highlight of the hearing was -
* Desperate grasp for political cover poorly disguised as a question.
The hands down winner was Evan Bayh (D-IN). In an inarguably pitiful performance, he tried to get Petraeus to agree with the platitude that “reasonable people can disagree” about the war – an obvious attempt to get cover from Petraeus that Bayh is as “patriotic” as anyone, war supporters Petraeus and McCain included. Petraeus - bless his conniving little heart – refused to cooperate, saying “Lots of things are arguable.” Bayh shamelessly tried a second time on the same theme. No dice from Petraeus; the best Bayh could get was “We fight for the right for people to have other opinions.” After some self-embarrassed babble, Bayh wandered off into rhetorical oblivion.
Throughout all this palaver – I can’t say “questioning” because no real questions were asked - there were no answers that advanced our knowledge of what is going on in Iraq. General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker were never in danger of facing anyone who informed him- or herself well enough to know when they were being feed baloney - or if they did, enough spine to correct the general’s and the ambassador’s vague, uninformative answers.
After all, the “questioners” were clearly not after information; they were after political advancement or protection.
If they were after information, they are gross incompetents.
Last word: after Chairman Levin gaveled the hearing to a close, protesters in the room started signing a song. To the listeners on TV, their words were totally incoherent. A fitting end, I must say.
Final note: Senator Barak Obama (D-I) was not present at this hearing; he is not a member of the Armed Services Committee. He will, however, have a chance to show his stuff when General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker appear before the Senate Foreign relations Committee this afternoon. He will have to wait, however, until after the Chairman of the Committee, Joe Biden (D-DE) stops talking. That may take a long time. We will have to be patient.
Winslow T. Wheeler spent 31 years working on Capitol Hill with senators from both political parties and the Government Accountability Office, specializing in national security affairs. Currently, he directs the Straus Military Reform Project of the Center for Defense Information in Washington.