One of the most dedicated, determined and talented American leaders - yes, they still make that kind - was called to testify last week before the diverse collection of politicos known as the Senate Armed Services Committee. Its members wanted to hear from General David Petraeus, the American commander in Iraq who is carrying out a strategy he himself largely devised: the Surge.
Since his last appearance before this committee, including three potential commanders-in-chief, there has been a far from complete but striking change for the better in Iraq. The idea of victory in that war has gone from forlorn hope to increasing possibility. In war, as an American general named MacArthur once said, there is no substitute for victory. And that includes the current euphemism for defeat, Exit Strategy.
When this same committee grilled the general last September, Hillary Clinton told him it would take "a willing suspension of disbelief" to credit what he was saying about American prospects in Iraq. In another sign of how much things have changed in half a year, the junior senator from New York did not repeat that cynical sound bite in these hearings. Though if, despite the odds, she turns out to be the next Democratic presidential nominee, the country will surely be treated to numerous playbacks of it sponsored by the Republican National Committee.
The general's current, cautious progress report evoked varied reactions from the committee. Some senators offered profusive, indeed embarrassing, praise. Others engaged in the kind of cynical jabs that have come to be the hallmark of those ambitious pols who have bet their future advancement on an American defeat in Iraq. (Even if they initially supported the American commitment there. See Clinton, Hillary Rodham.)
Listening to General Petraeus respond with unwavering dignity and measured deference to both praise and blame from the committee's different members, the mind drifted. I couldn't help wondering what the conversation would have been like if another American commander at another embattled time, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, had been summoned home to answer the same sort of questions at another crucial moment in American history - in the midst of the Battle of the Bulge.
Thanks to the magic of the Apocryphal Press, a news service of my own invention and imagination, here is how the Q & A would have gone if moved back in time to the turn of the year 1945, when the outcome of the momentous conflict then under way in Europe and the Pacific was still undecided.
Only names, places, dates and the war have been changed. The rest of the quotes are taken almost intact from the transcript of last week's hearings. The spirit of the exchange between an American general and his interlocutors, among them three presidential candidates this election year, has been fully retained:
General Eisenhower (Supreme Commander, Allied Expeditionary Force): "There has been significant but uneven security progress in the Ardennes. As of the end of December 1944, our casualties have been reduced substantially . . . . The situation in certain areas is still unsatisfactory, and innumerable challenges remain. Moreover, as events in the past two weeks have reminded us, and as I have repeatedly cautioned, the progress made since last spring is fragile and reversible." Senator John McCain, (R-Ariz.): "We're no longer staring into the abyss of defeat and we can now look ahead to the genuine prospect of success . . . . I do not want to keep our troops in France a minute longer than necessary to secure our interests there. Our goal, my goal, is a France that no longer needs American troops. And I believe we can achieve that goal, perhaps sooner than many imagine." Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY): "For the past four years, we have continually heard from the administration that things are getting better, that we're about to turn a corner, that there is finally a resolution in sight. Yet each time, our allies fail to deliver. I think it's time to begin an orderly process of withdrawing our troops, start rebuilding our military, and focusing on the challenges posed in the Pacific." Senator Barack Obama (D-Ill.): "Nobody's asking for a precipitous withdrawal, but I do think that it has to be a measured but increased pressure, and a diplomatic surge that includes Germany. Because if France can tolerate as normal neighbor-to-neighbor relations with Germany, then we should be talking to them as well. I do not believe we're going to be able to stabilize the situation without them."
When this same committee grilled General Petraeus last year, Senator McCain delivered the most concise summary of what these hearings are all about. It still holds:
"General Petraeus and his troops ask just two things of us: the time to continue this strategy, and the support they need to carry out their mission. They must have both."
Or has that become too much ask of this America? We shall see.