Sitting in the Senate Foreign Services hearing with General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker, it's striking how much more downbeat it is than the hearings last September -- the press hasn't filled its reserved seats, Code Pink is muted, the Republican senators aren't wasting too much breath defending Petraeus or Bush, and even John Kerry's and Joe Biden's speeches lack passion. The whole hearing just doesn't feel very urgent.
Remember when David Petraeus was everything? When the course of Iraq and the two parties' political prospects seemed to hinge on what he could do? When his testimony squelched the imminent Republican defection to Jim Webb's high-stakes troop rotation bill, and when we could think it was worth our time to spend a week talking about the political fallout of MoveOn.org's insult to his honor?
How things have changed. Today even Petraeus looks less like the great protagonist and more like another ensemble player in a drama that he didn't author, in which Maliki's follies in Basra, the shifting allegiances of the Sunnis, and the outcome of our own presidential race have just as much power to shape the plot. Petraeus himself is promoting this interpretation: "It [Iraqis turning against Al Qaeda] will be a local thing," he emphasizes, "not the flipping of a national light switch." Not very reassuring from the man who was supposed to reverse the disaster in Iraq, but looking back, should we really have expected much more from him?
I'll have more in a bit, but for a sharp look at how Petraeus and Crocker are trying to finesse the language of their testimony (hint: everything hinges now on the "special groups"!), check out Dana Milbank's "Rough Sketch" blog.