WASHINGTON -- Reflecting on Gen. David H. Petraeus' report and surrounding carnival, it's little wonder the natives are restless -- popping off in angry ads, firing personal invectives and, as regards Congress, surpassing even the low expectations of cynics.
Bubbling up from the cellars, meanwhile, is the unwelcome thought that no one is in charge. The president is deferring to the general; the general is deferring to the president; Iraqis are deferring to no one; and everybody else is running for office.
Such is the state of affairs six years after America was awakened by the armed sneer of radical Islam and four years into an unpopular war. And also, not insignificantly, several months into the longest presidential election season in U.S. history.
Politics is ever the enemy of judgment, and perspective gets lost in the hysteria that inevitably builds when large numbers of politicians and media gather too tightly in a room. The whir of cameras and the flash of bulbs alter the human ecosystem somehow and interfere with the brain's circuitry, it would seem.
Thus, Tuesday's Senate hearings at times resembled another presidential debate as Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, John McCain, Chris Dodd and Joe Biden enjoyed yet another opportunity to remind Americans that they're running for President of the United States. When they weren't giving speeches (instead of asking questions), senators were profiling and positioning themselves for photographers.
Clinton, noticing that no one noticed her entrance, left and re-entered -- this time along with Petraeus, with whom she was certain to be caught on camera. Even those who aren't running for president played one-upmanship, trying to establish their war bona fides by lapsing into first-person oracular and ruminating about personal visits to Iraq.
Through all of this, Petraeus, who has had three tours of duty in Iraq, remarkably managed to keep a straight face.
The question that attracted the most media attention, casting a light on our current state of confusion, came from Republican John Warner of Virginia. In the funereal voice that he has mastered, his face a Rushmore of gravitas, Warner asked:
"If we continue what you have laid before the Congress here as a strategy, do you feel that that is making America safer?"
Ah, the old is-America-safer gotcha. Petraeus, who was in town to give a progress report on the surge -- not to interpret al-Qaeda entrails -- again managed to keep a straight face and gave an honest answer.
"Sir, I believe that this is indeed the best course of action to achieve our objectives in Iraq," said Petraeus.
"Does that make America safer?" Warner pushed on.
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