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.
"Sir, I don't know," Petraeus said.
He doesn't know! Well of course he doesn't know, nor should he be expected to. Who does? Yet from some of the media's reaction, his response was a mind-boggling admission of failure. If we're not safer, then what is the point?
Others can debate this, but Petraeus's role isn't to assess homeland security. It is his job to evaluate whether our projected course of action is best for achieving our objectives in Iraq. Petraeus apparently thinks so.
The burden of reporting whether we are safer belongs to Bush, who ultimately is to blame for Warner's misplaced question. For months now, Bush has been happy for Petraeus to hold the bag, postponing decisions and deflecting criticism until the general's report. Like Fred Thompson's overanticipated entry into the presidential race, Petraeus' report was bound to be disappointing to some.
Now the bag is back in Bush's hands where it belongs, though nothing the president can say will change anyone's mind. Earlier in the war, Democrats complained that Bush wasn't listening to the generals. Now they complain that he is listening to the general.
Bush can't win for losing, though it is worth noting a few things for perspective:
The U.S. has suffered no terrorist attacks since 2001; it took the United States 12 years after the Declaration of Independence to ratify the Constitution.
In other words, wars do not begin and end to suit political campaigns. New nations do not invent themselves according to another nation's timetable.
We will argue to the end whether we ever should have entered Iraq, and most of us -- if we're honest -- wish we'd never broken that pot. But lack of perspective -- and hysteria stoked by politics -- ultimately may be our most daunting enemy yet.