The news networks will pitch Army Gen. David Petraeus’ Senate appearance Tuesday as a major battleground in the presidential race. The parties will use it to score points with their respective bases.
Petraeus himself will likely use it as a way to push for a pause in the withdrawal of troops from Iraq.
For the audience that really matters — the members of Congress who will shape the next supplemental funding bill for Iraq and Afghanistan — what really matters is readiness.
But like just about everything else in the five-year-old war, what readiness means is all in the eye of the beholder.
For Democrats, it’s cause for drawing down forces in Iraq.
For Republicans, it’s a reason to keep funding the war effort.
The military, meanwhile, is caught in between, coping with the strain of repeated, lengthy deployments and begging for funding for troops and equipment that is provided in fits and starts as the administration continues to ask for war funding through supplemental appropriations outside the regular budget.
In an appearance before the Senate Armed Services Committee last week — one that did not attract the sort of media circus that will follow Sens. John McCain, Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton around Capitol Hill on Tuesday — Gen. Richard Cody said the president’s surge of troops into Iraq has taken “all the stroke out of the shock absorber” for the Army.
“I’ve never seen our lack of strategic depth be at where it is today,” Cody said.
Democrats have seized on this thread in arguing for a drawdown of forces in Iraq. In addition to putting a strain on the nation’s economy, the war in Iraq, they say, has left the U.S. military stretched too thin.
50 greatest political moments
Subprime industries open wallets
Things looking up for Lautenberg
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton (D-Mo.) said last week that “the lack of readiness of our United States ground forces” keeps him awake at night.
Added Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee: “Every extra day we stay at these levels, the price we pay gets steeper: the risk to our soldiers, the strain on their families, the drain on the treasury, the impact on readiness and the damage to our standing in the world.”
Once Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker have returned to Iraq, Democrats may opt to revisit a measure sponsored by Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) that would require the type of 12-month-on, 12-month-off deployment schedule that was defeated during several Senate votes last year.
Democrats may also push to have some of the $102.5 billion the Pentagon is expected to seek in the next supplemental shifted from the ongoing efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan to longer-term investments in equipment and military infrastructure.
Meanwhile, Republicans will be mining the testimony from Petraeus and other military leaders for their own rhetorical weaponry.
For at least the past year, Republicans have tied the issue of readiness to the need for quick passage of supplemental spending bills. In addition to what military leaders call “rebalancing” the force, the Army needs a continuing flow of equipment, which gets interrupted when defense bills fall prey to the schedule of Congress.
“I have every confidence our armed forces stand ready to meet any challenge, despite the ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan,” said Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services readiness subcommittee. “However, the failure of this Democrat-led Congress to pass the entirety of the emergency war supplemental funding request in a timely fashion greatly exacerbates this problem in terms of morale and in terms of forcing the Pentagon to scramble to find resources to ensure our troops are prepared for combat.&rquo;
Thune pointed to comments made last week by Gen. Robert Magnus, the assistant commandant of the Marine Corps, who said that a delay in funding sends “a strong, unmistakable signal to our seasoned warriors, who have been willing — and their families have been willing — to sign them up to re-enlist.”
Advocates for the military industry also are beginning to make the case for ramping up funding for the war. One argument will be keeping contractual commitments for the military supply chain.
For instance, last year the Army bought Abrams tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles under a multiyear contract. The force is seeking more than $2 billion in the pending supplemental request for vehicles purchased on that contract. Lobbyists and, eventually, appropriators are likely to argue that failing to pass the supplemental will leave that contract in limbo.
The supplemental has become a grab bag of sorts for helping the military modernize while defense budgets are flush. Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England kicked off the idea in 2006, and appropriators including Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.) have picked up on it more recently.
The supplemental process has also provided members on both sides of the aisle with a semiannual opportunity to state their case about the war — even when they’ve had little new to say.
Petraeus and Crocker aren’t expected to announce any major policy changes or significant troop withdrawals when they appear before Senate committees Tuesday or House committees Wednesday.
And Democrats — lacking either a 60-vote majority in the Senate or the political will to cut off funding for the Iraq war — probably won’t be able to force a meaningful change in President Bush’s Iraq strategy until after he leaves office.
If that means this week’s hearings resemble political theater, the participants are reading from a familiar script.
As they have before, Democrats will seek to tie the war to larger national security and economic concerns.
“While violence and the drug trade have surged in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s security remains fragile, we are distracted by an endless civil war in Iraq,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said Sunday after sending Bush a letter in which he and more than 40 other senators pressed for a course change in Iraq. “To make America more secure, we must refocus on hunting down a resurgent Al Qaeda, securing a troubled Afghanistan, and rebuilding our overburdened and misused military,” Reid said.
Republicans, led by presumptive presidential nominee McCain, will argue that the surge is working. In a statement released Monday, House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) attacked Democrats for arguing that the war is taking a toll on the nation’s economy. “To characterize our ongoing effort to defeat radical Islamic terrorists as the trigger for our nation’s economic downturn is cynical and irresponsible,” Boehner said.
In a speech before the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Kansas City, Mo., on Monday, McCain took shots at Obama and Clinton, warning of the “grave consequences of a hasty, reckless and irresponsible withdrawal.”
Obama pushed back by saying that McCain “was wrong about the war from the beginning. He’s wrong to call for more resources in Iraq while the American people are struggling, and he’s wrong to support a 100-year occupation of a country that needs to take responsibility for its own future.”
Clinton fired back at McCain with a response of her own, arguing that putting him in the White House would mean “four more years of the Bush-Cheney-McCain policy of continuing to police a civil war while the threats to our national security, our economy and our standing in the world mount.”
Clinton said that the U.S. government “simply cannot give the Iraqi government an enless blank check,” and that the time had come “to end this war as quickly, as responsibly and as safely as possible.”
Daniel W. Reilly contributed to this story.