There was something so PG-13 about MoveOn.org's pre-emptive strike against Gen. David Petraeus on the eve of his Senate testimony. "General Petraeus or General Betray Us? " screamed the full-page New York Times ad. "Cooking the Books for the White House."
Somewhere, some frat boy is howling with glee. Petraeus, Betray Us, get it?
Yeah, we get it. Superbad, guys.
Senate Republicans have responded by demanding the Democratic leaders repudiate their party's baser instincts.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, introduced a "sense of the Senate" resolution acknowledging Gen. Petraeus' distinguished record (including two Distinguished Service Medals and a Bronze Star). Gen. Petraeus is not only a combat veteran but a Princeton Ph.D. (one of the few I know of who puts his life on the line for his country) and the author of the U.S. Army and Marine Corps' counterinsurgency manual.
Sen. Cornyn's resolution asks the Senate to "strongly condemn" all efforts to attack the honor and integrity of Gen. Petraeus and to "specifically repudiate the unwarranted personal attack on Gen. Petraeus by the liberal activist group MoveOn.org."
And if there is anything left of the once powerful American tradition that partisan politics stops at our shoreline, Harry Reid and his fellow Senate Democrats would rush to do so.
I'm not holding my breath.
It's too early yet to say exactly how much of an impact Gen. Petraeus' impressive testimony will have on U.S. public opinion. What is disturbing is how much depends on his capacity to persuade Americans that all is not yet lost in Iraq.
A Sept. 6-9 Associated Press poll underscored how pessimistic Americans remain that anything good can come out of Iraq. By 59 percent to 34 percent, Americans said they believe that history will judge the Iraq war a complete or partial failure rather than a success. A New York Times poll this week showed almost two-thirds of Americans favor either an immediate reduction in troops or a complete withdrawal.
The good news for President Bush on Iraq is that Americans trust military commanders far more than Congress to handle the war. This is also the bad news for Bush: When asked who they trusted to resolve the war, 5 percent chose the president, 21 percent favored Congress and 68 percent expressed the most trust in the military. Six in 10 say they believe the Bush administration deliberately misled them about the reasons for going to war.
Gen. Petraeus is assuming unusual political importance because the elected commander in chief is no longer trusted by our people to tell us the truth. This cannot be good for democracy in America, much less in Iraq.
But in spite of their jaundiced view of this administration, and their pessimism about Iraq, Americans are (unlike our political leaders) displaying remarkably grown-up, measured and responsible attitudes about what should happen next.
The majority of Americans (56 percent) in the New York Times poll favor staying in Iraq with reduced troop numbers "to train Iraqi forces, fight terrorists and protect American diplomats." Just 22 percent favor a complete withdrawal from Iraq over the next year, about the same number (20 percent) who say we should stay the course until stable democracy comes to Iraq. And 71 percent of Americans said flexibility in staging a withdrawal was more important than either unqualified victory or an immediate withdrawal demanded by MoveOn.org and its ilk.
Americans also retain their powerful bias that our military should be used primarily to protect Americans, not to prevent humanitarian disasters on far-flung shores. Almost half of Americans favor reducing troops even if the result is "more mass killings" in ethnic strife in Iraq. Just 30 percent favor reducing troops or withdrawal if it means Iraq would become a base of terrorist operations as a result.
I hope President Bush is taking notes.