First of all, the hearings went a lot better this time than they did last year.
Boneheaded opponents of the war managed not to do anything as stupid as they did last year, when they called Gen. David Petraeus "General Betray Us" in a full-page New York Times ad. As you may recall, this allowed Bush's war supporters in the media to devote all of their air time to acting offended instead of, oh, discussing the actual war.
There was no name-calling this time. I got a bit worried when I heard a senator refer to the U.S. ambassador to Iraq as "Crocker," until I realized that's actually his last name.
The gist of Petraeus' testimony to Congress was that the troop escalation, which began last year (better known as the surge), is working.
His presentation is partly compelling.
Violence in Iraq is indeed down since the surge. Petraeus is a clear improvement over the commanders Bush let run the operation from 2003 to early 2007.
In addition to putting more troops where they were needed, Surgin' Gen. Petraeus changed the way those troops fight. Fewer Iraqis and Americans are dying than in the months before the escalation began. Petraeus deserves credit. He's done the job he was asked to do. It's too bad his last name doesn't rhyme with anything complimentary. Fillet us? Flambe us? Saute us? I checked my rhyming dictionary. Seriously, there's nothing. Sorry, general.
The problem with the hearings, and much of the media coverage of the hearings, was that they failed to put the war in a meaningful, big-picture context.
And what is that big-picture context?
First, press coverage has downplayed the importance of several factors contributing to the decline in violence last year.
Massive ethnic cleansing homogenized neighborhoods where much of the fighting was taking place. Roughly 4 million Iraqis have been displaced from their homes. Also, the Sunni "Awakening" mentioned in the press is actually tribal leaders taking bribes from the United States to turn their arms against al-Qaeda in Iraq instead of against Shi'ites or Americans. It's arguably money well-spent, but it's not a long-term solution.
The primary failure of the media coverage of the event is the failure to emphasize that the surge is a set of tactics, not a strategy for victory.
When Bush announced the surge on Jan. 10, 2007, he was explicit. "A successful strategy goes beyond military operations," he said.
The surge was supposed to reduce sectarian violence enough that Iraq's political leaders would have enough "breathing space" (those are Bush's words) to hammer out the political compromises necessary to allow Iraq's three largest ethno-religious groups — Shi'ite Arabs, Sunni Arabs and Kurds — to live together as a nation, in peace.
The surge made breathing space, but reconciliation didn't happen.
When the surge started, Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had members of all the major political parties, including Sunni Arabs, in his government. He doesn't anymore.
And the recent fighting you may have read about in the Southern Iraqi city Basra — that was a turf battle between al-Maliki's Shi'ite faction and the Shi'ite faction led by Moqtada al-Sadr. Al-Sadr is a religious kook, but he's a popular kook whose party has a huge bloc in the parliament. When the prime minister is initiating street battles with militias belonging to a parliamentary opponent, that's not political progress. That's civil war.
Petraeus, to his credit, is not sugar-coating. He repeatedly called progress in Iraq "fragile" and "reversible."
Does he mean we've turned Iraq into a silky duvet cover? No, he means that we're five years into the war and there's no end in sight. Bush created a damned-if-we-do, damned-if-we-don't scenario and is content to hand the problem off to the next president. By recommending that U.S. troop levels stay above presurge levels indefinitely, he is essentially admitting that the U.S. military is the only force holding Iraq together right now.
That's good progress.