WASHINGTON — Now that the president has endorsed the Petraeus-Crocker plan for Iraq, it is worthwhile noting one exchange from their Senate hearings.
Some senators, such as Barbara Boxer of California, were so self-absorbed they could not manage to ask a single question in their allotted time, even when they had Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker ready to provide answers.
Lindsey Graham of South Carolina is not like that. An Air Force Reserve officer, Graham is an incisive questioner whose unexpected and provocative inquiries often produce revealing answers, whether the subject is Iraq, immigration or a Supreme Court nomination.
A Republican with a notable record of independence, Graham has been an outspoken advocate of the surge strategy — claiming real success on the ground and urging its continuation.
But Graham’s first question to Petraeus called on the general to “put on the table as honestly as we can what lies ahead for the American people and the U.S. military if we continue to stay in Iraq. … It’s highly likely that a year from now we’re going to have at least 100,000 troops in Iraq?”
“That is probably the case,” Petraeus said. “Yes, sir.”
Graham’s follow-up was even more surprising. “How many people are we losing a month, on average, since the surge began, in terms of killed in action?”
“Killed in action is probably in the neighborhood of 60 to 90.”
Graham then noted that “we’re spending $9 billion a month to stay in Iraq. … So you’re saying to the Congress that you know that at least 60 soldiers, airmen and Marines are likely to be killed every month from now to July, that we’re going to spend $9 billion a month of American taxpayer dollars, and when it’s all said and done, we’ll still have 100,000 people there. You believe it’s worth it in terms of our national security interests to pay that price?”
Petraeus said: “Sir, I wouldn’t be here, and I wouldn’t have made the recommendations that I have made, if I did not believe that.”
After a few more questions, Graham turned to Crocker and confronted him with a surprising question: “What’s the difference between a dysfunctional government and a failed state?”
Crocker replied: “In a parliamentary democratic system such as Iraq has, there is a mechanism for the removal of governments that people get tired of. Parliament can simply vote no confidence.”
That sounded to me — and to Graham — like a hint that the United States would welcome a change from Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki if new and more flexible leadership were to appear in Baghdad.
Graham wanted to underline that message. “Would you agree with me,” he asked Crocker, “that Iraq is a dysfunctional government at this moment in time?”
“Certainly, it is a challenged government,” Crocker replied.
“You’ve called it dysfunctional,” Graham said. “The point I’m trying to make is, to anybody who’s watched this, this government is in a dysfunctional state. The point I’m trying to make, there’s a difference between still trying and not trying.”
When I talked with Graham on Thursday, he said he had asked those questions because “I am sick and tired of people posing choices between the two extremes; I want reality-based policy. Harry Reid (the Senate Democratic leader) is as bad as Rumsfeld was in rejecting reality. He said in April that the war is lost, and he refuses to accept anything else.”
But Graham said he thought Crocker was “making a pretty major statement that the clock is running out on the Maliki government — and we can have an effect on it by what we do here.”
“There are alternatives,” he said — Shiite political leaders who are willing, for example, to tour the Baghdad jails with Graham and be photographed with Sunnis who are protesting the imprisonment of so many of their co-religionists. “The good news,” Graham said, “is that Kurds and Sunnis and Shiites are ready to play politics. Judges feel more secure because of the surge, and that is important, because all of them have experienced rough justice.
“What we do can affect the outcome. But if we don’t see progress on two of the three big issues — oil revenues, de-Baathification, provincial elections — in the next 90 days, it may not happen. And Iraq could be a failed state.”
Despite the president’s words, that sounds realistic.
David Broder is a Washington Post columnist. His e-mail address is email@example.com.