Questioning Petraeus: Squandered Opportunities, Longwinded Monologues

About halfway through the September 11 Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing with General David Petraeus and Iraq Ambassador Ryan Crocker, Senator Barbara Boxer of California got her allotted seven minutes to ask questions.

She began by informing Petraeus and Crocker "I represent 37 million people" and that she spends much of her time informing her constituents of "my own views." She then told the witnesses that "this war is the biggest foreign policy mistake ever" and detailed why.

Boxer's "question" went on for 1275 words, and used up her entire seven minutes. She wrapped up by saying:

"My question is -- and I know I've run out of time, so I will have to take it in writing, but it's a very important one. Don Rumsfeld said no more than six months would this war last. How long will it take now that we've spent $20 billion and we've trained 350,000 Iraqis in counterinsurgency? When, General Petraeus, can they take over their own defense? Call me old-fashioned -- you have a country, you defend it."

No information was elicited. Nevertheless, Boxer issued a press release headlined "SEN. BOXER ASKS GEN. PETRAEUS TO TAKE OFF ROSE-COLORED GLASSES AND FACE REALITIES IN IRAQ" and posted prominently on the front page of her website a link to a video of her "question" under the heading, "Senator Boxer Asks General Petraeus to Face Realities in Iraq."

In theory, the purpose of a congressional hearing is to find out information to guide policy-making. In reality, as those who have suffered through such sessions know, the purpose all-too-often is for politicians to tell witness and television cameras what they think, with little or no acquisition of information.

Cross examination at congressional hearings requires extensive research and careful planning, especially when dealing with sophisticated witnesses who are skilled at remaining technically truthful while revealing little.

Some members of the Foreign Relations Committee and the Senate Armed Services Committee did press for answers, using short, tough questions.

The questioning by the four Democratic presidential candidates in the Senate -- Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, Joe Biden, and Chris Dodd -- produced mixed results.

Perhaps the most discomfiting was Obama who, after talking for 1,181 words and using up all his time, asked a question that had already been raised more than once:

SEN. OBAMA: And if we're there at the same place a year from now, can you please describe for me any circumstances in which you would make a different recommendation and suggest it is now time for us to start withdrawing our troops? Any scenario? Any set of benchmarks that have not been met?

AMB. CROCKER: Senator, I described for Senator Sununu a little bit ago some of the things that I think are going to be very important as we move ahead.

SEN. OBAMA: Can you repeat those? And I know I'm out of time.

Hillary Clinton combined a long, 858-word statement with two modestly revealing questions. One required Petraeus to reaffirm his position that he would be "hard-pressed" to call for the continued presence of a large troop contingent if there were no change in Iraq a year from now; the other allowed Crocker to reiterate a policy of trying to engage other nations in and outside the Middle East region to find solutions to the Iraq war.

Dodd, in turn, quoted a wounded soldier in Walter Reed Hospital who said "'Look, the civilian population,...they know where the IEDs are, they know where the ammo dumps are; they won't share that information with us'... [Are] his views commonly held views about the cooperation from the Iraqi population?"
Petraeus replied, "you can walk around the map, and you could say, looking at it, literally, this is where they'll help you, this is where they won't. The fact is that we are getting a lot more help. I mean, that's the only explanation for the fact that we now have 4,400 weapons caches."

Biden, who is known for a tendency to talk, and talk, long into the night, in fact asked a series of short, to-the-point questions, including:

SEN. BIDEN: Is it not true that the fundamental purpose of the surge, the primary purpose -- political settlement -- has not been met at this point?

AMB. CROCKER: Sir, clearly we do not have a national level of political settlement. It also, I think, is no way reasonable to expect that a surge that reached its full strength just in the middle of June --


SEN. BIDEN: If in fact the circumstances on the ground are exactly what they are today in March of next year, will you recommend the continuation of somewhere between 130,000 and 160,000 American troops being shot at, killed and maimed every day there?

GEN. PETRAEUS: Mr. Chairman, I -- that's a pretty big hypothetical --

SEN. BIDEN: Well, I don't think it's hypothetical if they're to stay.

GEN. PETRAEUS: I would be very hard-pressed to recommend that at that point in time.

At the same time, Biden, unlike the other Democratic presidential candidates, had one big advantage: as chairman, he alone could make an opening statement before cameras that did not count against his 7 minute question time. He did so for 1,681 words.

Of course, the number of questions asked does not guarantee that either the queries or the responses add much to the debate. Some of the slowest softballs of the hearing were pitched by Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Alabama):

SEN. SESSIONS: Well, I think that's important. There's no one area of that country that's exactly like another area.

GEN. PETRAEUS: That's correct.

SEN. SESSIONS: Each one has to be treated differently. Does it not?

GEN. PETRAEUS: That is correct, sir.

SEN. SESSIONS: And you had that complexity in mind as you developed this strategy. I think it does give us cause for belief that we can make progress. General Petraeus, when your came before us in January before you went to Iraq, you had told me previously that no matter what happened, you would tell the Congress the truth. I asked you that that morning, and you committed to tell the American people the truth as you see it. Have you to the best of your ability told this Congress the truth about the situation in Iraq today?

GEN. PETRAEUS: I have, yes, sir.

SEN. SESSIONS: And General Petraeus, in your opinion, is a circumstance in which -- in your opinion, is this effort in Iraq such that we cannot be successful, that we would be putting more effort in a losing cause if we continue it? Or in your opinion, do we have a realistic chance to be successful in this very important endeavor?

GEN. PETRAEUS: Sir, I believe we have a realistic chance of achieving our objectives in Iraq.

If Sessions put them chest high over the center of the plate, Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson of Georgia held the ball motionless right in front of the witnesses so that it was impossible to miss:

SEN. ISAKSON: So this is really a recommendation for a way forward to reduce American involvement in combat, increase the involvement of the Iraqi troops, and have an oversight, an overwatch if you will, of those operations by American troops. Is that correct?

GEN. PETRAEUS: That is correct, sir.

SEN. ISAKSON: And the -- and you can't put a timetable on it, because none of us ever can. But certainly we're in reach or in sight of some of those significant goals that were established five years ago that would then trigger the ability to make some of those reductions.

GEN. PETRAEUS: That's correct.

Senator John Warner (R-Va.), who is now on the fence in terms of supporting or opposing the administration, used short, pointed questions to elicit the most striking response of the hearing:

SEN. WARNER: Are you able to say at this time, if we continue what you have laid before the Congress here as a strategy, do you feel that that is making America safer?

GEN. PETRAEUS: Sir, I believe that this is indeed the best course of action to achieve our objectives in Iraq.

SEN. WARNER: Does that make America safer?

GEN. PETRAEUS: Sir, I don't know actually. I have not sat down and sorted out in my own mind.