Q&A With Congess: Inconsistent Senators Support Gen. Petraeus But Oppose His Plan for Iraq

In his confirmation hearing to become commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, Lt. Gen. David Petraeus said in his opening statement that “military action to improve security, while not wholly sufficient to solve Iraq’s problems, is certainly necessary. And that is why additional U.S. forces are moving to Baghdad.”

This statement followed President Bush’s decision to deploy an additional 21,500 troops to Iraq that was outlined in his January 10 speech. “Our past efforts to secure Baghdad failed for two principal reasons: There were not enough Iraqi and American troops to secure neighborhoods that had been cleared of terrorists and insurgents. And there were too many restrictions on the troops we did have,” the President explained in his address to the nation.

At the confirmation hearing, Sen. John McCain (R.-Ariz.) directly asked Petraeus: “Suppose we send you over to your new job, general, only we tell you that you can’t have — you can’t have any additional troops. Can you get your job done?”

Petraeus answered, “No, sir.”

McCain followed up with another important question: “Suppose that we send you additional troops, and we tell those troops that we support you, but we are convinced that you cannot accomplish your mission and we do not support the mission we are sending you on. What effect does that have on the morale of your troops?”

Petraeus told him, “Well, it would not be a beneficial effect, sir.”

Later in the hearing, Sen. Joe Lieberman (I.-Conn.) asked Petraeus if “a Senate-passed resolution of disapproval for this new strategy in Iraq would give the enemy some encouragement, some feeling that — well, some clear expression that the American people were divided.”

“That’s correct, sir,” Petraeus said.

On January 26, Petraeus was unanimously confirmed by the Senate to carry out the President’s mission in Iraq. Yet since his confirmation, the Senate has been consumed debating different nonbinding resolutions against the troop surge.

I spoke with a few senators directly about the contradiction between confirming Gen. Petraeus and then taking action to oppose the strategy he devised.

There is a point that it is inconsistent for senators to confirm Gen. Petraeus and support nonbinding resolutions against the surge he supports—

Sen. Ben Cardon (D.-Md.): I disagree with that. Gen. Petraeus was well-qualified to be confirmed. I believe he is probably the best qualified for the whole mission, and I hope he is successful. I’m going to do everything I can for him to be successful in Iraq, but I oppose what the President is trying to do with a surge of additional troops. I will do everything I can to help [Petraeus] succeed.

Don’t you think that puts Petraeus in a difficult position, since he supports the surge?

Cardin: Not at all. He’s a military leader. He’s not a political leader. He’ll carry out his mission, and his mission is not just what the President of the United States says, it’s what the Congress weighs in on also.

If you really wanted to do something binding, senators would have voted against Gen. Petraeus [in his confirmation hearing], who is the architect of the troop-surge policy—

Sen. Norm Coleman (R.-Minn.): That’s absurd. The issue is not about doing something binding. We can’t bind. Well, there is one way we can bind and that is to cut off funding, and most of us disagree with that.

But isn’t that inconsistent to do?

Coleman: No, we’re not the commander in chief. What we are doing is articulating the concern that we have. The President is not going to act upon that. He’ll do what he has the ability to act on. I’m not going to do anything that is going to hurt the troops on the ground. Cutting off the funding would be a terrible mistake, and I don’t think there is any bipartisan consensus in that direction. I think folks are concerned about a specific aspect of the policy and that what is in play here and that is what we are articulating. Does it change the policy? No! We recognize the constitutional authority of the President to be commander in chief. He asked for our opinion, and we are giving it to him.

Do you think it’s inconsistent for senators to confirm Gen. Petraeus but at the same time be pursuing resolutions against the surge he supports?

Sen. Ben Nelson (D.-Neb.): Oh, no. Gen. Petraeus would be there under any set of circumstances. He supports the plan for now, but if the plan changes, I suspect he would support the President’s plan.

But wouldn’t that be a way of pursuing action instead of nonbinding resolutions?

Nelson: No. Go back and take a look. Gen. Petraeus, we voted on giving four stars. That’s what that was about. Don’t mix the vote with the resolution: They are different. You wouldn’t deny Gen. Petreaus’s fourth star as a way of having some way of protest against the President’s plan. It wasn’t a vote on the plan.

Do you think it’s inconsistent for senators to vote to confirm Gen. Petraeus and at the same time pursue nonbinding resolutions against the troop surge that he supports?

Sen. John Cornyn (R.-Tex.): Absolutely. The idea that you support the troops, but you don’t support their mission or their commander seems very inconsistent.

The logic of one [senator] who voted for him that he told me was that “We voted to give him his fourth star, we didn’t vote on the policy.” Can you react to that?

Cornyn: That’s baloney. That’s my reaction.

Is it inconsistent for senators to vote to confirm Gen. Petraeus and be pursuing resolutions like yours?

Sen. Russ Feingold (D.-Wis.): That’s just wrong. I mean the idea that somehow your vision of whether the President gets to pick his own generals is not the same as how you end a war. Gen. Petraeus is a confident man. I disagree with him on this war, but I give the President great deference on who he wants to conduct his policy. If Gen. Petraeus had done something wrong or done something to make him unfit for office, so be it. But that’s a sideshow, and there’s a tendency here to do the sideshows whether it’s getting rid of [Secretary of Defense Donald] Rumsfeld or whether we should vote against Petraeus. The issue has always been whether this war made sense from the beginning and whether it makes sense now. And Democrats and everybody else who opposes this war should now focus on the main issue.

Do you think it was inconsistent for those who voted to confirm Gen. Petraeus to pursue resolutions against the troop surge he supports?

Sen. David Vitter (R.-La.): Yeah, I’ve made that point. What a lot of people around here seem to be saying is “we have supreme confidence in this person” but good luck as we send him off into a very challenging situation — and by the way, we don’t believe in your plan, we don’t think you’ll succeed down the line. I don’t think that is consistent, and I don’t think it is a smart thing to do in a time of war.

Some people have told me it wasn’t a vote on his plan—

Vitter: It was vote to send him to Iraq and put him in charge of those operations. I mean, he still goes. He still goes to the mission. They just think he is going to fail.

 Several nonbinding resolutions and pieces of legislation have been introduced to support or oppose President Bush’s decision to send 21,500 troops to Iraq. Below is a brief summary of the options that will be considered in the Senate next week.
 Sponsors  Action
 Senators Joe Biden (D.-Del), Carl Levin (D.-Mich) and Chuck Hagel (R.-Neb.)  A nonbinding resolution that calls the surge an “escalation” that is “not in the national interest of the United States.”
 Senators John Warner (R.-Va.), Susan Collins (R.-Maine) Norm Coleman
(R.-Minn.) and Ben Nelson (D.-Neb.)
 A nonbinding resolution stating Senate opposition to the surge, but is open to adding a smaller number of forces. Also recognizes the President’s authority over U.S. forces.
 Senators John McCain (R.-Ariz.) and
Lindsey Graham (R.-S.C.)
 A nonbinding resolution that would express support for the added troops, but outline benchmarks the Iraqi government should meet.
 Sen. Barack Obama (D.-Ill.)  Legislation that insists U.S. combat forces leave Iraq by spring 2008, but would not cut funding.
 Sen. Christopher Dodd (D.-Conn.)  Legislation to require congressional approval if troop levels exceed levels before the troop buildup, or around 130,000. Would not cut funding.
 Sen. Russ Feingold (D.-Wis.)  Legislation to cut funding for the war after six months.
 Sen. John Cornyn (R.-Tex.)  A nonbinding resolution that supports the surge, as long as the Iraqi government “makes substantial progress toward meeting the commitments it has made,” including assuming control by November 2007.
 Sen. Johnny Isakson (R.-Ga.)  Legislation to prevent money’s being cut from the war.