The testimony given by Gen. David H. Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker before two senate committees last week was television at its most surreal. For over twenty hours, the two men (both honorable, both eminently qualified, both hamstrung by their limited mandates) were questioned by the senators of the Senate Armed Services and the Foreign Relations Committees. For the members of Congress it was a frustrating search for answers as Crocker and Petraeus were asked question after question while responding with a tautology of the familiar: stay the course. Petraeus was frank enough to say that there is no light at the end of the tunnel, though senators from both sides of the aisle pointed out that perhaps there is a light and it's a train fast approaching.




Truth be told, both men could have phoned in their reports, for when pushed neither was able to give even a remote approximation of what "mission accomplished" looks like or when America might begin to seriously drawdown its troops. All Petraeus would say was that the troops that were sent to Iraq as part of the much touted "surge" would return and we would be at a pre-surge level of 140,000 and holding. In July there would be a 45 day period of consolidation and evaluation to determine whether the drawdown would continue. Or not.




The benchmarks to be met by the Iraqi government, part of the original planned surge (breathing room to effect national reconciliation), were not mentioned. But then every Senator present, to include Crocker and Petraeus, knew that Iraq continues to be riven with sectarian fault lines, shifting alliances, and a dysfunctional government. You need a program to identify all of the factions &

Shiites, Sunnis, militias, tribes, Kurds, Iranians, criminal elements &

to know who, on any given day, we are fighting. Even John McCain has had his problems of late figuring out the difference between Shiites, Sunnis and Al-Qaeda (he said Al-Qaeda were Shiites, then flipped to Sunnis, then said whoever).




So how, then, do we ever define success? How will we know it when it arrives? No one in the White House is able to answer that question. Instead, this administration has taken the goal posts out of the stadium, placed them on a flat bed truck, all the better to move said posts around as the situation warrants. The truth is the war in Iraq cannot be won militarily; it is a conundrum which, as some Senators pointed out, can only be solved diplomatically. But it seems because this administration has a hammer, every problem in the Middle East is a nail.




Witness the recent battle in the port city of Basra wherein Iraqi troops were sent in to purge the militia forces of the radical Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr. Over 1,000 Iraqi soldiers went AWOL, American airpower was needed, and a cease fire finally had to be brokered by an Iranian general. But then, Iran's Quds forces were heavily involved in the battle, supplying tactical support and weapons to the militias. It has been reported that 100s of our troops have been killed by Iranian involvement in this war.




Tangentially, the importance of Basra, according to one NBC journalist, long-stationed in Iraq, is its oil. At stake is who will get the millions from the sale of black market oil, which is skimmed from Iraqi pipelines. This is just one manifestation of rampant corruption which is undermining all efforts at rebuilding the country.




Consider as well that the al-Sadr militia fought the Iraqi army to a stand still. The U.S. has invested $22 billion and counting in training the Iraqi forces. Who has been training the militias and why are they able to fight with such ferocity and commitment that a cease fire was necessary?




We also know that the Sunnis (ex-insurgents who were only recently killing Americans), called the "Sons of Iraq" and "Awakening Group," have decided to join us in our fight against Al-Qaeda in Iraq (A.Q.I.). We're paying the fighters $300 per month and there are an estimated 80,000. For now it's in their best interest. That could change. Mercenaries are notoriously fickle.




And there is one other point. While Petraeus and Crocker talk about this war with no end, there is a fact which is the subtext for any discussion and that is our national debt which now stands at $10 trillion. We are borrowing an obscene amount of money from China and others to finance this war, which is costing $10-12 billion monthly. We are broke and yet we are hemorrhaging money daily and now hit by what may be a protracted recession. And when China runs rough shod over Tibet, or continues to subsidize the Sudanese government with purchases of oil while Darfur is leveled, or casts a baleful eye on Taiwan, well, remember, these are the folks who are holding most of our paper. We don't want them to stop buying our T-bills.




Of course, Bush and company, when challenged about the war's no exit strategy will quickly outline a parade of horribles which would result should we leave. There will be intensified unrest, even civil war; Iran will expand its influence; Al-Qaeda will use Iraq as a platform for terrorism; the internal conflagration will spread to Iraq's neighbors. And so on.




But can we really be expected to expend the blood and treasure of our nation while standing with our finger in the dyke, at something like $450 million a day, fearful that if we drawdown everything that is occurring now will be ramped up and worse? We are in a ditch, driven there by George W. And Iran is happy to watch us struggle to extract ourselves while our Arab allies remain strangely quiet.




For America, for our country, for our economy, for our absent infrastructure repair and health care and schools, well, we also have a parade of horribles and perhaps it's time to say we have made every good faith effort. It's time to come home.




One final point: because of the cost of oil, Iraq's economy is running a surplus. Now that's surreal.