By Gregor Peter Schmitz in Washington
For two days, the Washington spotlight shone elsewhere: on General David Petraeus, the US commander in Iraq. He went before Senators and Representatives earlier this week to answer questions about the war -- and made it clear that US troops would have to remain in the country for awhile longer. In answer to critical questions from Democrats and Republicans alike, he expresses cautious optimism, but said "we don't talk turning points, there are no lights at the end of the tunnel." The frustration among the gathered members of Congress was palpable.
US President George W. Bush spoke about Iraq on Thursday, again.
His optimism is notable, primarily for its contrast to Petraeus' tone, as he goes down the list of successes bullet point by bullet point: The violence has dramatically decreased. The American cooperation with the Iraqis is better than ever. The improved security situation provides an opportunity for political success.
In other words, when Bush leaves the White House in January 2009, there will still be 140,000 soldiers stationed in Iraq. Bush has made no secret of the fact that for him the US engagement in Iraq is not linked to any term of office. "If we fail there, al-Qaida would claim a propaganda victory of colossal proportions," he said. "Iran would work to fill the vacuum in Iraq."
Bush, in short, is changing nothing -- unless one counts the reduction in a tour of duty from 15 months to 12 months. For soldiers currently serving in Iraq, however, the change means nothing. It is also doubtful whether this small concession will be enough to ease resentment among top American commanders over the strain on their troops. In his testimony to the House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday General Richard Cody, the Army's outgoing vice chief of staff, said that the "Army is out of balance."
The Democratic response has been predictably furious. According to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, Bush intends to leave "a failed Iraq policy on the doorstep of the next president." Presidential candidate Barack Obama commented that: "In other words, there is no end in sight under the Bush policy. If that isn't enough for you to want change, I don't know what is." Obama's rival, Hillary Clinton, has said: "The president refuses to face the reality that we are confronted by in Iraq." Both Obama and Clinton have spoken out in favor of a swift withdrawal of US troops.
But the Democrats also know that they can't change Bush's strategy much before the end of the year. What is almost more important this week is that Republican members of Congress were just as open with their unease over the Bush administration's course. "The American people have had it up to here," Republican Senator George Voinovich of Ohio complained at Tuesday's hearing on Iraq. Voinovich's influential party colleague Senator Chuck Hagel criticized the lack of diplomatic success that was supposed to accompany troop increases -- the so-called "Surge" -- made in early 2007. "That's not just one side of the aisle with those kind of concerns," said Republican Representative Jeff Flake of Arizona. "Many on this side of the aisle have that as well."
The reason for the concern is clear: Money. Over and over again Bush has asked Congress for the means to finance the war in Iraq -- just recently it was a request for an additional $108 billion (68 billion). The president admitted that the sum was a burden, but insisted it was worth bearing. After all, "it pales when compared with the cost of another terrorist attack on our people."
Not all, though, are willing to adhere to his logic. Especially with the US economy rapidly slowing down, a number of Republican representatives wanted to know why American taxpayers should have to pay for recontruction in Iraq at a time when Baghdad's budget is in surplus as a result of oil revenues.
Concern is also growing in Washington that the conflict could spread -- in the form of a potential military strike against Iran. In his speech, Bush mentioned Iran almost as often as al-Qaida in Iraq. And his threats were clear. "If Iran makes the right choice, America will encourage a peaceful relationship between Iran and Iraq," he said. "If Iran makes the wrong choice, America will act to protect our interests and our troops and our Iraqi partners."
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