What the Generals Said
Since the Republican Congress isn't interested in holding oversight hearings, much less providing oversight of the administration, Democrats, meeting officially-unofficially did conduct an extra-legislative hearing on Defense Sec Rumsfeld and the war in Iraq on Monday. Several former or retired military officers and generals were invited to testify. And the brass gave Rumsfeld the business for the lack of planning and insufficient support towards the war effort.
Ezra and Matt first responded by noting the apparent lack of media attention to the Democrats' hearing. Matt later noted there was more media attention than he had at first detected. In any event, Ezra pointed out that the claim that Democrats are fearful of stepping out on national security issues and want to confine the elecion debate to domestic and economic issues is belied by these Democratic efforts, however poorly reported or ineffective legislatively. The slang that Democrats are weak or aren't focused on national security issues ends up becoming a self-fulfilling prophesy when the actions it does take on national security are under-reported, or not reported at all.
But the retired and former officers had more to say about Iraq then Rumsfeld screwed it up.
But Democrats, while celebrating Batiste's criticism of the administration, exercised some selective listening at the hearing when Batiste and his colleagues offered their solution: more troops, more money and more time in Iraq.
"We must mobilize our country for a protracted challenge," Batiste warned.
"We better be planning for at least a minimum of a decade or longer," contributed retired Marine Col. Thomas Hammes.
"We are, conservatively, 60,000 soldiers short," added retired Army Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton, who was in charge of building the Iraqi Security Forces.
That last remark caused Schumer to shake his head, indicating he was not so sure. And, indeed, the retired officers' recommendations were off-message for the Democrats. Six of the seven Democrats at the hearing supported legislation calling for the start of a troop withdrawal from Iraq this year. One, Richard Durbin (Ill.), voted for the pullout to be mostly complete by next summer.
The questioners skillfully directed the witnesses toward past failures rather than their expansive prescriptions for the future. A notable exception was the relatively hawkish Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.), who, as the last questioner, invited the officers to comment on the effect of a specific withdrawal date.
"The result will be a civil war of some magnitude that will turn into a regional mess," Batiste said without hesitation.
As he stood to leave, Batiste worried that this last point -- the need to stay in Iraq -- might be overlooked. "The hard part," he told reporters, "is moving forward."
Did he detect any enthusiasm for making a bigger effort in Iraq?
"God help us if there's not," the general said.
Democrats might not have much say on Iraq for another two years, although control over at least one branch of Congress after this fall might enable some oversight hearings and some honesty about how we proceed.
From a rhetorical viewpoint, Democrats can probably help the country and improve things towards Iraq by beginning to scale down the talk about bombing or invading Iran, and helping to tamp down on the fear surrounding terrorism and antagonism towards international institutions and other countries the administration and its allies have been stoking for six years. It doesn't make sense, and isn't practical, to make threats against countries while your military is bogged down in another one.
From a policy-standpoint, Democrats may eventually need to consider some of the recommendations our military personnel would make. We know the administration has ignored them. Democrats should perhaps make it clear to the public that unlike the current regime, they would cast a wide-net in seeking political and military solutions in Iraq, including, and in particular, those of the military, an institution generally respected by the American public.