September's anti-climax

For all the hype attending September's pontificating on the war in Iraq, none of last week's much mattered except maybe Chuck Hagel's and, to a lesser extent, Richard Lugar's.

Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker represented the vested presidential interest, and, even then, hedged.

This was their predictable message: The surge is showing modest progress in that there is a little less violence than before, partly because we've aligned in some areas with insurgents who are fighting al-Qaida. So, while we can soon draw down our troops by 30,000, we need otherwise to stay the course. We must wait to see if these incremental improvements will continue because the situation is fluid, and, after all, there isn't any other option.

Petraeus is reportedly a wise and intellectual man, surrounded by similarly wise and intellectual advisers. He and his aides supposedly have ideas. He owed the Congress and the country a treatise on those, and certainly more than the superficial banalities he offered.

Petraeus and Crocker gave their report to a congressional committee infested with five candidates for president, all of whom gave speeches that amounted to campaigning rather than objective pursuits of truth.

Joe Biden is simply a caricature of self-absorbed, tone-deaf verbosity. Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and Chris Dodd used their seven minutes to talk over the general and ambassador to the Democratic primary base. They will get us out of Iraq. They are less clear on what happens then.

John McCain was campaigning as well. He asserted that Petraeus and Crocker were providing evidence to support his commitment to the Bush course. He threw in a few tough questions to fashion a semblance of the independent-mindedness that once was his ticket to the White House.

It matters what these candidates say, since it's more clear than ever that George W. Bush will punt this quagmire to the next president. But nothing these five said last week dealt with what they'll do. It had only to do with how they run.

That brings us to Hagel, the Nebraska Republican, and Lugar, the Indiana Republican.

Hagel has dared to break with his party to say the situation in Iraq is inevitably futile politically and that, owing to the inevitable futility, we ought to come on home as soon as we can.

A Vietnam veteran who earned two Purple Hearts and is not seeking re-election, Hagel said it stood to obvious reason that the surge would lead to security improvements. But he said that pockets of lessened violence -- especially those based on our teaming up with violent gangs -- offered nothing hopeful on the real issue, which was reconciling Iraq politically.

Lugar seems to agree with Hagel on every aspect except outright withdrawal. Weeks ago he made headlines by suggesting that we redeploy troops to safer areas and pursue Iraqi and regional diplomacy.

This respected ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is a more moderate, cautious type than Hagel. In fact, Lugar's comments last week tended to be exasperatingly self-mitigating.

He said the outline presented by Petraeus and Crocker offered a "very narrow margin for success." Still, he said he supported it as far it went, in the absence of the broader thinking he recommends.

Alas, it's probably true that Lugar's comments could appear fresh or insightful only in the hollow predictability of last week's instantly tired rhetoric.

There are three questions: Can Iraq possibly reconcile politically and govern itself, and, if so, how can we best make it happen? If it most likely can't, how do we best face that fact and withdraw? And what will we do if, and perhaps when, our departure leaves chaos and slaughter?


John Brummett is an award-winning columnist for the Arkansas News Bureau in Little Rock and author of "High Wire," a book about Bill Clinton's first year as president. His e-mail address is jbrummett@