A New York Times/CBS poll reported last week that only 22 percent of Americans surveyed wanted a complete troop pullout within the next year. Petraeus also won on another level: believability and trust. Going into the hearings, Gallup reported that 63 percent of Americans trusted his recommendations on Iraq.
Throughout the grilling to which both he and the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, were subjected, Petraeus never flinched, never once showed any emotion and pointedly declined to engage in hypothetical questions. He stuck to his report and stayed on message over two days and three separate committee hearings.
His cool, nonpolitical, noncombative demeanor was in sharp contrast to the politically transparent anger he faced in both the House and Senate. Sen. Barack Obama, trying to jump-start his presidential candidacy, used most of his allotted time as a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to deliver a political speech fiercely criticizing administration war policy, instead of posing questions about Petraeus' testimony.
With his time nearly up, he hastily asked Crocker, with little apparent thought, about "benchmarks." "Senator, I described (them) for Sen. (John) Sununu a little bit ago," Crocker replied. Taken aback, Obama asked, "Can you repeat those?"
The leftist group MoveOn had tried to cut Petraeus down to size on the day of his first hearing with a $100,000 ad in the New York Times that called the career Army officer, who has been on the front lines of the Iraq war, "General Betray Us," accusing him of "cooking the books."
But the ad only served to embarrass Democratic leaders, who were asked to defend a hateful personal attack on a widely admired decorated soldier that Republicans called "disgraceful."
Now, less than four months before the 2008 election year, the debate over the war has changed dramatically. The argument -- at least for now -- is no longer whether the surge is working. It has worked, and is working.
Suddenly, the Democrats' antiwar cry of "bring the troops home" does not carry the same weight it did before. Instead, they face the prospect of campaigning in next year's presidential primaries amid news reports of ongoing U.S. troop withdrawals as the Iraqi army grows in experience, size and lethality.
In the meantime, Petraeus faces the difficult task of holding the ground that U.S. and Iraqi troops have cleared, while extending his gains elsewhere in the country by next July. That's when he must reassess the next step when he hopes the Iraqi military will be even stronger, and ready to shoulder more of the fighting and dying for their country.