General David Petraeus went to Capitol Hill Wednesday to brief Congress behind closed doors on the progress of the surge. No word on whether he walked across the Potomac to get there.
But given the glowing terms increasingly desperate Republicans have been using to describe him, I'm sure they wouldn't have been surprised if he had.
He's been lauded as, among other things, "an expert on counter-insurgency" (President Bush), "a determined, resourceful and bold commander" (John McCain), "a superb officer, one of the finest I've ever known" (Dick Cheney), "a student of counterinsurgency warfare" (Orrin Hatch), and "Bush's Grant" (Lindsay Graham).
His name has become a verbal trump card. As soon as you mention Petraeus, it's game over. Why continue talking? He's a one-man cavalry, riding to the rescue armed with a Princeton PhD and a successful stint in Mosul. The pro-war crowd's olive drab savior -- able to confer military absolution on America's greatest foreign policy disaster with the wave of his hand.
These bold pronouncements -- and attendant irrational expectations -- are almost always buttressed by the fact that, as we have been told again and again, "General Petraeus literally wrote the book on counterinsurgency." Literally.
Which he did, spending the last year overseeing the preparation of FM 3-24, the Army's newly-revised counterinsurgency field manual.
The trouble is, most of those touting his authorship have clearly never read his magnum opus. Or perhaps they have, didn't like the plotline, and decided to ignore or alter the contents to fit their political agenda. (This, of course, is standard operating procedure for the Bushies. Just this week, the president suggested the 2006 elections offered a mandate for his policy of escalating the war on Iraq, and Dick Cheney used the findings of the Iraq Study Group to slam Harry Reid, conveniently skipping over the fact that the ISG recommended a troop withdrawal timetable similar to the Democrats'.)
Now they are willfully ignoring Petraeus' blueprint for success -- and acting like they are following it to a tee. His newly-minted counterinsurgency approach calls for a ratio of 25 soldiers per 1,000 residents -- which would require 120,000 soldiers to provide the proper security for Baghdad, and roughly three times that amount for all of Iraq. But let's just focus on the 120,000 soldiers that, according to the manual written by Petraeus -- "the expert on counterinsurgency," remember? -- are needed to secure Baghdad. Simply put: we're not even close to that number. And never will be. Even after all of the planned 21,500 additional troops are sent to the embattled capitol, there will still only be 85,000 security forces there -- and that includes significant numbers of Iraqi security forces, whose readiness and loyalty have repeatedly proven to be unreliable at best.
So Petraeus says it will take 120,000 soldiers to succeed. Instead, he's being asked to do it on the cheap -- and pretend that he's getting what he needs. And this is just in terms of troops. Petraeus' manual also says that a muscular military presence is just 20 percent of what is needed for a counterinsurgency effort to succeed -- the other 80 consists of establishing political and economic reform, two areas in which the United States is also failing miserably.
Despite this, Petraeus, to his eternal discredit, is going along with the charade -- probably crossing his fingers behind his back -- and promising to let us know how it's really going sometime this summer. But we don't need to wait until sometime this summer. We can see the news, and count the bodies, and know for ourselves that this is all just another case of prolonging the inevitable, of asking more young men and women to die for a lost cause. For the first time since the war began, we've just had five straight months with 80 or more U.S. fatalities.
In ancient Greek dramas, an apparently insoluble crisis was sometimes resolved by the intervention of a god, brought on stage by an elaborate piece of equipment. This contrived resolution was known as a deus ex machina ("god from a machine").
In this present insoluble crisis, defenders of the war like to imagine Gen. Petraeus flying in on a giant Blackhawk suddenly transforming chaos into order. A Petraeus ex machina.
But this is no ancient Greek drama. It is an all-too-real American tragedy. And the sooner the White House stops waiting for a play-acting god to intervene, the sooner we can do the right thing and bring our troops home.