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    Middle East
     Sep 13, 2007
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The Petraeus moment blots out the world
By Tom Engelhardt

The former Cockney flower girl turned elegant English-speaker Eliza Doolittle caught something of our moment in these lyrics from My Fair Lady: "Oh, words, words, words, I'm so sick of words ... Is that all you blighters can do?" Of course, all she had to do was be Galatea to a self-involved language teacher/Pygmalion.

We Americans have had to bear with the bloviating of almost

every member of Congress, the full-blast public relations apparatus of the White House and two endless days of congressional testimony from General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker, not to speak of the flood of newspaper, radio, and TV stories about all of the above and the bevy of experts who are hustled out to do the horse-race assessments of how the general and ambassador performed, whether they "bought" time for President George W Bush, and the like.

And - count on it - that's just the beginning. The same cast of characters will be talking, squabbling, spinning and analyzing stats of every sort for weeks to come - with a sequel promised next spring. Everyone knows that's the case, just as everyone has known since midsummer that we would get to this point and, when we did, that things similar to those said (and written) in the past few days would indeed be said (and written), and that nothing the blighters would say or write would matter a whit, or change the course of events, or the tide of history, even though whole forests might be pulped in the process and it would be springtime for hyperbole and breathless overstatement in the world of news.

There has been a drumbeat of growing excitement in the US press, preparing us for "pivotal reports", a "pivotal hearing", "highly anticipated appearances", and "long-awaited testimony" or, as both the Washington Post on its front page and the American Broadcasting Co (ABC) World News in a lead report put it, "the most anticipated congressional testimony by a general since the Vietnam War".

Petraeus himself has been treated in the media as a celebrity, somewhere between a conquering Caesar and the Paris Hilton of generals. Nothing he does has been too unimportant to record, not just the size of his entourage as he arrived from Baghdad, or the suite he was assigned at the Pentagon, or even his "recon" walk through the room in the House of Representatives where he would testify on Monday, but every detail.

Somehow, when he refused to give interviews before his "long-awaited" appearance, lots of Petraeus-iana slipped out anyway:
He also has taken short breaks for walks with his wife ... for dinner with their daughter, who lives in the area, and for lunch with his wife's parents. On his daily jogging route he maintains a brisk, steady pace over a 7-mile route, snaking from Fort Myer, across the Potomac and through Georgetown ...
Sigh ...

So who, exactly, was so eagerly awaiting the jogging general's testimony? If a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll is any indication, a majority of Americans weren't among that crowd. They had already discounted whatever he would say - I doubt the ambassador even registered - as "exaggerated" and "a rosier view" than reality dictated before his face and that chest full of ribbons hit the TV screens. ("Just 23% of Democrats and 39% of independents expected an honest depiction of conditions in Iraq.")
This was simple good sense. What exactly could anyone outside Washington have expected the general - who had a hand in creating the president's "troop surge" strategy, is now in charge of the "surge" campaign, and for months has been delegated the official Bush administration front man for what was, from Day 1, labeled a "progress report" - to say? An instant online headline caught the mood of the Petraeus moment while his first round of testimony was still under way: "General Petraeus sees Iraq progress". Ah, yes ...

And what in the world could anyone have eagerly anticipated from America's unbudgeable president? Just what occurred. And yet, in the US media, and inside Washington, the drumbeat for "an anticipated moment of truth" continued, as if something were actually at stake. Take just one example. On Sunday, the Washington Post had a hard-breathing piece by no fewer than six of its best journalists, with the headline, "Among top officials, 'surge' has sparked dissent, infighting".

It focused on a reported "clash" between General Petraeus and his theoretical boss, Centcom (Central Command) commander Admiral William J Fallon. It seems that the two fell into a near end-of-the-world-style struggle because Fallon had begun "developing plans to redefine the US mission and radically draw down troops". ("'Bad relations?' said a senior civilian official with a laugh. 'That's the understatement of the century ... If you think Armageddon was a riot, that's one way of looking at it.'")

Naturally, Petraeus, like Bush, wanted to continue to surge full strength (as we now know - not that we didn't before - from his slow-as-molasses plan to draw down US forces). But what did that radical Fallon have in mind that led to a "schism"? According to a source who spoke to a Post reporter, it "involved slashing US combat forces in Iraq by three-quarters by 2010." Imagine a Centcom commander as a force slasher!

But hold on a moment. Combat forces make up, at best, less than half of all US forces in Iraq; so if, by 2010, the good admiral wants only three-quarters of those combat troops withdrawn, then we're still left with at least 80,000 or more troops in that country three years from now.

Well, I'm with Eliza D - and so, evidently, was the technology of the House hearing room in which the general and the ambassador appeared on Monday. After the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Ike Skelton, and various other congressional representatives introduced the hearings for what seemed like hours, the general was finally given the floor for his "long-awaited" testimony.

His mouth began to move but in a resounding silence. The mike had failed and (except for Code Pink protesters rising from the audience to shout and be escorted out) the room fell into just about the only Iraqi silence of these past, "eagerly anticipated" months - and what a relief that was. While Skelton fumed, the announcer on the US cable network MSNBC suggested, "The commander of US forces in Iraq is apparently powerless over the sound system in the hearing room."

It was a moment that had Iraq written all over it. After all, has anything worked as planned or dreamed since March 2003?

Of course, 15 minutes later the mike had been replaced (though the room lights then proceeded to flicker as if in distant communion with electricity-less Baghdad). In Iraq, one suspects, people would have just started shouting - and the general did finally launch on his monotonal, mind-numbing, expectably boilerplate testimony. He promised that, if all went well, US troops would be back to pre-surge levels by mid-July 2008, 10 months from now, 18 months from that plan's beginning. "Progress" indeed.

The general's testimony would be dealt with in the tones of gravitas that journalists-cum-pundits and pundits-cum-pundits reserve for moments like this. Yet, given the original expectations of the Bush administration, some of the testimony Petraeus (and later Crocker) had to offer would have been little short of hilarious if the subject weren't so grim. (Good news! Four years after the invasion of Iraq, we finally have the former Ba'athists of al-Anbar province, whom our president used to refer to as "dead-enders", on our side! Even better, we're arming them and all is going swimmingly!)

Buying a precious extra six-plus months for the White House, the general also suggested that it would be premature to think beyond next July when it came to "drawdown" plans, and that we should, instead, all reconvene in mid-March for more of the same.

Sigh ...

You can, of course, already begin writing the script for that "eagerly anticipated", "long-awaited", "pivotal" moment when the 

Continued 1 2 

A cut in Iraq, but definitely no running (Sep 12, '07)

Uh, uhhm: Say no more, Iraq is a slam dunk (Sep 11, '07)

1. Subprime meltdown finally affects beer drinkers

2. US may attack, but will Iran fight back?

3. The discreet charm of US diplomacy

4. Syria and Israel flirt with war

5. Sheikh Osama and the iPod general 

6. Anti-Iran hype reaches fever pitch  

7. In gold we trust 

8. Pakistan's military kitted for new power

9. Cartoons aid US lynch mob mentality

10. The man with the dyed beard returns

(24 hours to11:59 pm ET,Sep 11, 2007)


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