US Iraq War Surge Splurge: Congress, Presidential Candidates Debate

After concluding two days of hearings into the progress of the US troop surge in Iraq, several prominent members of the US Congress have slammed the surge as a failure and a distraction from the growing threat of global terrorism.

General David Petraeus testified that there have been “significant” decreases in violence in Iraq since the surge commenced mid- year and that the level of security incidents are now “the lowest since June 2006.” He recommended that the US maintain current troop levels until at least next summer, when he said it may be possible to begin the withdrawal of 30,000 troops. In the longer term, he envisions a US military presence in Iraq for another decade.

Opponents of the war responded that the US needs to start winding down its presence sooner to pressure the Iraqi government to meet political reconciliation benchmarks, which are necessary to quell the sectarian violence. The Iraqis have failed to meet 15 out of 18 agreed benchmarks since the troop surge commenced, according to a recent report of the US Government Accountability Office.

At the first joint hearing on Monday, Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, said the surge had been a strategic failure: “The current escalation in our military presence in Iraq may have produced some tactical successes, but strategically, the escalation has failed. It was intended to buy time for Prime Minister Maliki and the other Iraqi political leaders to find ways to move toward the one thing that may end this terrible civil conflict – and that, of course, is a political settlement. As best we can see, that time has been utterly squandered.”

He added, “As long as American troops are doing the heavy lifting in Iraq, there is no reason – none at all – for the Iraqis themselves to step up. Military progress without political progress is meaningless.”

This is a view shared by Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a presidential candidate. He told the NewsHour on Tuesday that the Bush administration knows it can’t succeed in Iraq militarily and appears to be using the surge to buy time to pass the unpopular war onto the next US President. “I think there’s no potential for success,” he said. “We should be overseeing … We should not be in the midst of this civil war.”

Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, the committee’s ranking Republican, also doubts that the troop surge can succeed in the absence of political reform. “I think, in fairness, what we heard is that the national government is way, way off in the future,” he said. “The odds for a good result coming out of the surge are still not very good.”

Sen. Biden insisted that the surge could not be credited with the US military’s much-touted success in Anbar province, as claimed by Gen. Petraeus. “He was trying to conflate the notion that, because the Sunnis decided that they had enough of al Qaeda, that somehow that meant that the central purpose of the surge, to give the sectarian warring parties breathing room so that they could come up with a political accommodation for all of Iraq had worked,” said Sen. Biden.

Presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) also rejected the claim that the surge had achieved a meaningful reduction in violence: “We have now set the bar so low that modest improvement in what was a completely chaotic situation, to the point where now we just have the levels of intolerable violence that existed in June of 2006, is considered success. And it’s not. This continues to be a disastrous foreign policy mistake.”

After hearing the testimony of Gen. Petraeus and US Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker, Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York, another Democratic presidential candidate, said, “I believe that you, and certainly the very capable people working with both of you, were dealt a very hard hand. And it’s a hand that is unlikely to improve, in my view.” She also told Gen. Petraeus that she thought he had become a “de facto spokesman for a failed policy”.

Meanwhile, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, a Republican presidential candidate, declared his full support for the surge. “Make no mistake, the consequences of American defeat in Iraq will be terrible and long-lasting,” he said. “Some senators would like to withdraw our troops from Iraq, so we can get back to fighting what they believe to be the real war on terror, which is taking place somewhere else. This is inaccurate. Iraq has become the central front in the global war on terror and failure there would turn Iraq into a terrorist sanctuary in the heart of the Middle East, a host for jihadists planning attacks on America.”

Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney also said that Iraq remains a central front in the war on terror. “The importance of a successful conclusion to Iraq must be weighed in light of the global threat of violent jihad and terror. America must continue its commitment to the strategy Gen. Petraeus is executing.”

However, other Republicans and Democrats argued that staying the course in Iraq will weaken the ability of the US to effectively deal with the threat of terrorism. Gen. Petraeus was asked repeatedly if the war in Iraq had made the US any safer, to which he responded that he did not know, because he was focused on his mission.

A clearly frustrated Senator Russ Feingold (D-Wisc.) countered, “With all due respect, these two critical leaders here in our government are not willing to seriously comment about how this relates to the larger global fight against terrorism, the allocation of resources. This is a classic example of myopia. This is the myopia of Iraq that is affecting our ability to look at this as the global challenge it is.”

Sen. Clinton said she found it unacceptable that the Bush administration continues to spend billions in Iraq while Osama bin Laden remains free to taunt Americans and al Qaeda expands its recruiting and training operations in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Rep. Lantos accused the Bush administration of “wrecking” the US military at the expense of counterterrorism, and bequeathing the onerous debt to the next generation of Americans: “We are wrecking our military and the enormous financial cost of this war is limiting our ability to address our global security needs. The cost of this war in Iraq will be passed along to our grandchildren and beyond.”

Sen. Lugar noted the advice of top military advisors that the war was now taking a toll that will undermine the US military’s strength for years to come. “The United States has other obligations in the world. Furthermore, some of our military people are pointing out that we have overstretched these troops and we’re lowering the qualities that we need for the recruits that are coming in. In short, this is a nation that has some potential military difficulties.”

Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), who has long opposed the war in Iraq and recently announced his retirement from politics, asked: “Are we going to continue to invest American blood and treasure at the same rate we’re doing now? For what? The president said, ‘Let’s buy time.’ Buy time? For what? Every report I’ve seen, there’s been really very little, if any, political progress and that is the ultimate core issue – political reconciliation in Iraq.”

President Bush is expected to discuss his plans for the war in Iraq in a nationally televised speech on Thursday.

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