As protests heat up, Petraeus stays cool

Gen. David Petraeus is surrounded by cameras as he prepares to address members of the U.S. House last week.

? Every time he gestured with his hand or looked up from his prepared text, Gen. David Petraeus was greeted by a flurry of clicking camera shutters. Television lights bore down on him and Ambassador Ryan Crocker as they faced more than 100 U.S. House members seated before them in rows, awaiting their turn to praise or pounce.

The general was the main event last week as he addressed the House Foreign Affairs and Armed Services committees. He remained cool, but there was no doubt he was on the hot seat.

I happened to be in Washington last week, and after jumping through some hoops to get a temporary press credential, I was sitting in one of only 30 seats allocated to members of the print media in the Cannon House Office Building meeting room. Broadcast media were lined up along a side wall, and print photographers were shuttled in and out. It was a hot ticket for journalists; a Washington Post columnist almost got kicked out because a committee staff person thought the newspaper had too many reporters at the hearing.

Behind three rows of print media seats, at the very back of the room, were about 20 seats for members of the public who had lined up for the privilege of sitting in on the long-awaited report. At the head of the line were women from “Code Pink,” an anti-war group that was new to me but not to the Washington press corps. They were hard to miss, dressed in bright pink and wearing Statue-of-Liberty-style pink crowns with “peace” spelled out on the spikes.

They had waited in line not to listen but to make a point. In fact, they weren’t in the hearing for long. The first Code Pink member was escorted out after shouting “Tell the truth, general” soon after Petraeus entered the room. Another was banished after calling the general a “war criminal.” After a third outburst, Rep. Ike Skelton, the Missouri congressman who was chairing the hearing, warned the crowd that protesters would be prosecuted.

The media was looking at the back of Petraeus’ head, but we had front-row seats from which to watch the protesters being dragged away, sometimes kicking and screaming, by capitol police. One of those ejected even had press credentials and was sitting with the media, but after Skelton noted that Petraeus and Crocker wouldn’t take an oath before testifying, he shed his journalistic objectivity and shouted out “Swear ’em in.” Out he went.

This all happened before Petraeus even started his testimony.

The testimony was delayed briefly by embarrassing problems with the general’s microphone. Skelton suggested that perhaps another mike could be borrowed from a committee member. Behind me, a reporter for the Washington Post chuckled under his breath, “He’s asking a member of Congress to give up their microphone?”

Aside from the microphone glitch, Skelton ran a good hearing. He kept order in the room and his enforcement of a five-minute limit on committee questions/statements allowed many members to address Crocker and Petraeus.

It was clear they didn’t always like the answers they were getting, but in my opinion, Petraeus was doing as well as anyone in his position could. He didn’t go out of his way to discredit the policy of his boss, the president, but neither did he gloss over some of the more unpleasant realities of the situation in Iraq.

He noted that security gains had been uneven across Iraq and conceded that he and other officials had underestimated Iranian involvement in Iraq when the surge began. The level of that involvement, he said, is “something about which we and Iraq’s leaders all now have greater concern.”

He warned against handing over tasks to the Iraqi security forces before they were ready to handle them and admitted that he and Crocker agreed that “Iraq’s problems will require a long-term effort.”

It seemed unfair to question Petraeus’ honesty. When he reported that “the military objectives of the surge are, in large measure, being met,” he was saying that the military had accomplished its goal of creating increased security in which diplomatic or political advances could have occurred. The fact that there was little or no progress in those areas doesn’t mean the military mission was a failure.

When asked to look to the future, Petraeus was cautious. In response to a question, he said he didn’t know what threat would be posed to the United States if coalition forces leave Iraq while al-Qaida in Iraq was still in place, but he also noted, “The defeat of al-Qaida in Iraq would be a huge step forward in the global war on terror.”

During more than five hours of testimony, the closest the general came to showing emotion during the hearing came in his response to a pointed question from a committee member who noted that seven U.S. soldiers had died in Iraq during the hearing and asked how many more U.S. soldiers should be allowed to die in this cause.

“No one,” Petraeus said tersely, “is more conscious of the loss of life than the commander of the forces.”

The general has become the face of U.S. involvement in Iraq. Even with Ambassador Crocker at his side, Petraeus was the man, the one to whom people were looking for a fair assessment and possible solutions that went well beyond military strategy. If they hoped for more than they got last week, Petraeus isn’t the one to blame.