In the Arena

Latest Column…and Last Word on the Hearings

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In which the performances of Petraeus and Crocker are evaluated .

A final note on all this. At the very end of the very last hearing, Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin asked General Petraeus for a clarification: When he returned to testify in–chuckle inserted here–six months, was he going to make recommendations about whether there should be further reductions or about the pace of those reductions?

Petraeus said he would make recommendations about the pace of the reductions, which made it clear that he believes the drawdown will continue even after we get to 15 combat brigades in July.

This is likely to mean that we are going to see a dribble of troop withdrawals, or maybe as much as a brigade a month, from Iraq throughout the election year. I suspect this may make it harder for Democrats to make Iraq a big issue in the general election, especially if the number of spectacular terrorist bombings continues to wane…and if the withdrawal doesn’t precipitate internecine chaos.

Some of us will continue to scream that this has been a historic disaster, but I’m afraid that the President–and the Republican candidate–will be able to say, What’s your problem? We’re leaving with honor….or some such. And they’ll be right: If Petraeus can tamp down the violence, if the turn of the Sunni tribes presages an end of hostilities nationwide (which I doubt), then there won’t be much to say.

The problem is, that would short-circuit the most important Iraq debate of all, which really isn’t about Iraq: it’s about how we proceed in fighting the jihadis across the region, and how we regain our stature in the world, and whether the Bush Doctrine of unilateral, pre-emptive assault should be rejected. Whatever happens in Iraq–and I continue to hope that the General’s optimism is justified–that is a debate that needs to be front and center in 2008.