COMMENTS: Petraeus Payoff

The long-awaited Congressional testimony on the war in Iraq dominated the headlines. After a weeklong buildup, including President George Bush's surprise Labor Day visit to the al-Anbar desert and CBS anchor Katie Couric's five-day tour of the region, the payoff arrived in the form of House hearings. The star witnesses were the United States' military and diplomatic leaders in Baghdad: Gen David Petraeus and Amb Ryan Crocker. Each network treated the hearings as a military matter--as opposed to political or legislative--assigning its Pentagon correspondent to Capitol Hill to lead off each newscast. Altogether Iraq War coverage accounted for 53% of the three-network newshole, a 29 minute total. However, the Petraeus-Crocker combo was still outshone by the Iraq Study Group. Last December's report (text link) by James Baker and Lee Hamilton attracted 44 minutes when it was Story of the Day.

Each correspondent selected his own Petraeus soundbite to headline his coverage. ABC's Jonathan Karl (subscription required) focused on success: "The military objectives of the surge are in large measure being met." CBS' David Martin selected the promise of a troop pullout: "What I recommended was a very substantial withdrawal." NBC's Jim Miklaszewski chose Petraeus' defense against the charge that his professionalism was compromised. "I wrote this testimony myself. It has not been cleared by nor shared with anyone in the Pentagon, the White House or Congress." Miklaszewski was referring to's anti-war full-page ad in The New York Times that punningly speculated whether his testimony would "betray us" by "playing politics with the war."

While Petraeus proclaimed success using charts showing fewer civilian deaths and sectarian attacks, CBS' Martin was underwhelmed: "Violence is still high running at levels comparable to 2005." At the White House, Martin's colleague Jim Axelrod reminded us that "the ultimate goal of the surge" had been to enable the Baghdad government to operate. Reporting on that had been Crocker's job and he "had a much tougher case to make" with "a paralyzed parliament unable, so far, to pass major laws that would foster Sunni-Shia reconciliation." In response, Crocker "floated a new definition of progress, diminishing the importance of the central government in Baghdad."

As for that promise of a troop drawdown, none of these military correspondents were impressed. "For all of the talk of withdrawal, the bottom line is that by next summer, some five years after the start of the war, there will still be more than 130,000 US forces in Iraq," ABC's Karl commented. That deployment would be "right where they were before the surge began," CBS' Martin calculated. NBC's Miklaszewski reflected that Petraeus' "new strategy…sounds pretty much like stay the course." He added: "Politically speaking this probably takes the whole debate back to square one."


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