The anger and frustration over Iraq that prompted voters to bounce many Republicans from Congress last November was supposed to give Democrats the momentum they needed to end the war. Instead, 10 months after Election Day, many are conflicted and confused about what to do next.
Last week's congressional testimony by Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker went better than even their supporters could have expected. Blunders by the left clearly worked in their favor. In a somewhat surprising move, the highly decorated four-star general took the brunt of the fire, leaving the more susceptible Crocker, testifying about the slow political progress in Iraq, unscathed.
The left-wing MoveOn.org, usually known for rallying the Democratic base, instead divided it when it attacked Petraeus in a full-page New York Times ad. The debate in Washington instantly shifted from Petraeus' progress report to the personal smear launched against him.
Congressional Republicans headed into last week's hearings split on Iraq. But thanks to MoveOn's ad, they found something to rally around. By the time the week came to a close, even presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani got into the mix, placing his own ad in the New York Times that ridiculed MoveOn's attack on the four-star general.
The left's second mistake came during the Petraeus and Crocker hearings. Activists from Code Pink repeatedly interrupted their testimony, prompting the Democratic chairman of the House Armed Service Committee, Rep. Ike Skelton of Missouri, to utter a profanity that was picked up by his microphone.
Aside from disrupting the hearing, Code Pink activists came adorned with signs featuring slogans such as "Generals Lie, Soldier Die." A protester dressed like the devil and wearing a mask of President Bush held another sign that said, "I've got Petraeus by the soul."
The Politico's Jonathan Martin remarked that "Karl Rove, Lee Atwater and Donald Segretti couldn't put their heads together and come up with such a dream scenario."
But these repeated attacks on Petraeus didn't come just from the left-wing fringe. Congressional Democrats were nearly as bad.
"He's made a number of statements over the years that have not proven to be factual," Reid said of Petraeus at a press conference. Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) added: "He is presenting the same cherry-picked numbers that we've all heard before." Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.) went a step further: "This testimony today is eerily similar to the testimony the American people heard on April 28, 1967 from General William Westmoreland."
But no one could top Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who spent 7 minutes, 39 seconds and 1,282 words to launch one barely coherent broadside after another against Petraeus. Boxer talked for so long that Petraeus didn't even have a chance to respond. He'll have to do so in writing.
There's just one problem with these personal attacks on Petraeus: He's the one person Americans trust on the issue of Iraq. A CBS News/New York Times poll last week asked who was "most likely to make the right decisions about the war in Iraq." The Democrat-controlled Congress got 21 percent; military commanders (Petraeus) got 68 percent.
Some of Petraeus' critics eventually caught on that the smears had backfired. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) began calling it the "Bush-Petraeus report." Unfortunately, it may have come too late. Democrats, who so forcefully demanded withdrawal earlier this year, now appear resigned to the fact that they'll have to strike a compromise with Bush.
No one likes the fighting that's taking place in Iraq, but the sad reality is that a precipitous withdrawal today would lead to even greater catastrophe in the future. Petraeus has shown his plan is working. Those members who voted unanimously for his confirmation in January -- and by extension a new strategy for Iraq -- owe it to him to see that the job is finished.