WASHINGTON -- There is no doubt that Gen. David Petraeus won the politically charged slugfest on Capitol Hill last week when he called for the withdrawal of 30,000 troops from Iraq between now and early next year.
He won it on his case that, as bad as things are in Iraq, the troop surge of the past six months has made verifiable progress in key battlegrounds now cleansed of terrorists. And he won it by outflanking the Democrats' demands that we begin precipitously pulling all of our forces out now by a specific deadline.
There is also no doubt that Democratic war critics and their leftist allies at MoveOn.org suffered some blows and were bleeding, strategically and politically. Before the week was over, they had been decked by a one-two punch. The first delivered by Petraeus' troop-withdrawal recommendations; the second, by President Bush who quickly embraced them.
In one bold, outflanking maneuver, the Republicans were suddenly on the offensive again and the Democrats were desperately playing defense as best they could. Only this time they were the ones opposing the troop pullout that the administration was preparing to begin in the coming weeks.
On the first point, the grounds had clearly been prepared for Petraeus' case that things were demonstrably better. In the past four weeks, dozens of defense analysts and lawmakers, Democrats and Republicans, have come back from tours of Iraq, praising the improved security situation in Anbar province and several other areas in the country. Veteran reporters from newspapers that have been severe critics of the war, like the New York Times, have come back with similar assessments.
Petraeus strode into the House and Senate hearings last week armed with charts detailing the progress made in strategic areas that showed far less sectarian violence and reduced terrorist attacks, owing in large measure to strategic alliances between U.S./Iraqi forces and Sunni and Shia tribal chiefs who have turned against Al Qaeda.
On the second point, he surprised war critics by the size and swiftness of the forthcoming withdrawal. Democrats were left sputtering about his figures and arguing that U.S. forces would still number 130,000 troops. But such statistical bean counting was overwhelmed by the headlines that a preliminary, carefully thought-out troop withdrawal would begin this year.
While the national news media repeatedly highlights the large majorities favoring a troop pullout, it never mentions that these same surveys, like the latest Gallup Poll, also show that majorities approaching 70 percent do not want to see a complete withdrawal until U.S. forces establish a "reasonable level of stability and security in Iraq."
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.