"I Don't Know"

Brian Beutler ponders the spectacle of General David Petraeus admitting he doesn't know if the war in Iraq makes Americans safer:

I almost sympathize with him. But in the end this only brings to light the giant expanse between how George Bush casts Petraeus and what Petraeus can accomplish (or even claim his role to be) without showing his hand. Bush says "winning" in Iraq is critical to American safety. He also says he's handed over responsibility for success there to General Petraeus, who we all must trust because he's just so honorable. Tall order. But that setup leaves Petraeus in an uncomfortable position, especially when faced with members of the Senate: He can't claim to be everything the president says he is, but neither can he suggest that his mission is anything but completely essential for American security. He must either sacrifice his mission-minded reputation as a soldier and toe the Bush line, or call into question the value of the mission itself. On Tuesday, I think we saw a man desperately trying to have it both ways and failing badly.

It's worth saying that Petraeus' answer was, in many ways, the only appropriate one to give. A soldier's job is to execute a policy. If you call him on the floor, you can expect him to defend his execution of the policy. Bush, however, wants Petraeus to defend the policy. This, however, isn't Petraeus' job. He's the top general in Iraq. He's not, however, in command of our civilian presence there. Nor is he in charge of diplomacy with Iraq's neighbors or with major allies (Israel, Egypt, etc.) elsewhere in the region. He's not in overall command of American military forces in the Middle East. He's in the Pentagon taking a big picture look at the American military. Nor is he fighting al-Qaeda around the world.

None of those things are his job. But they are all incredibly important pieces to put together when you want to ask whether or not our policy in Iraq is, all things considered, serving the national interest. That question, however, is a question for George W. Bush; a political question for politicians to debate without hiding behind generals or claiming their opponents are slandering the troops.