Rupert Cornwell: Democrats are powerless as testimony buys more time for Bush

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After weeks of feverish build-up, the general has finally spoken. But even before he opened his mouth yesterday one thing was clear. Whether or not General David Petraeus is correct in asserting that the surge is finally bearing fruit in Iraq, here in Congress, where the domestic argument over the war will be decided, the battle is raging more inconclusively than ever.

The appearance of the top US commander in Iraq before a joint session of the House Armed Services and Foreign Affairs committees was billed as the most important by an American general in time of war since William Westmoreland went before Congress in 1967 to plead for more troops for Vietnam. And at least until they fumbled for 10 minutes to make his microphone work, it was.

Introductory statements by committee big-wigs are usually polite occasions. But not this time. From the opening bell, Democrats and Republicans were at each other's throats.

With its policies, the Bush administration had created "a fiasco", said Tom Lantos, the Democratic chairman of the Foreign Affairs panel, a debacle that was "wrecking the military, forcing great sacrifices by families and the endless spending of young lives". Forget the gradual troop drawdown offered by General Petraeus, to return to pre-surge levels by next summer. That was "nowhere near enough", Mr Lantos said. "We need to go, and the time to go is now." Ike Skelton, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, was only marginally more polite. General Petraeus might be the right person – but he was "three years too late, and 250,000 troops short".

Their Republican opposite numbers of course would have none of it, and an own goal by MoveOn.Org played straight into their hands. "General Petraeus or General Betray Us?" screamed a full-page ad in The New York Times yesterday, placed by the anti-war group on the Democratic left. Slandering your political opponents is one thing. Suggesting a top general is committing treason is quite another.

Duncan Hunter and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the senior Republicans on the committees, rushed to denounce this attack on the general's integrity. Perish the thought that Petraeus might be reading a White House script. In case anyone doubted it, he denied it in person: "This is my testimony. It has not been shared with anyone."

The words of General Petraeus and Ryan Crocker, Washington's envoy in Baghdad, counted as little against the raw arithmetic of Congress. Democrats do not have the 60 votes needed to force a withdrawal timetable through the Senate. In short, the surge will run its course and President Bush will run his war pretty much as he wishes. It will be for his successor, probably a Democrat, to clear up the mess.

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