Petraeus unveils ‘surge’ strategy to deal with congressional questions

Philip Maddocks

 Just days after facing pointed questions from U.S. representatives and senators about progress in the war in Iraq and the prospects for political stability and troop withdrawals, Gen. David H. Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker unveiled their new "surge" strategy for dealing with congressional questioning, featuring a chart buildup designed to head off legislative interference and create space for a new White House strategy in Iraq to take root and develop.

Mr. Crocker refused to be pinned down in the face of harsh questioning on when large-scale PowerPoint involvement in Congress might come to an end, but he signaled that it would not be soon. And General Petraeus, the top military commander, offered a rare display of annoyance with the senators’ skeptical questioning, telling the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, after his computer froze up during mid-presentation, "I’m as frustrated about this as everyone else."

General Petraeus’s assessment was devoid of any ringing optimism but did include numerous and colorful graphics.

The two men testified together before the Foreign Relations Committee this morning and this afternoon before the Senate Armed Services Committee, where Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the committee’s ranking Republican, was one of the few lawmakers to defend the current non-specific chart-oriented approach, asserting that "we’ve finally got it right. And I don’t say that because I understand; I say it because I’m a maverick"

Mr. Crocker told both committees that while many challenges remained ahead in Congress and success will not come quickly, the situation is "slowly and algebraically improving." But that prognosis did not come close to satisfying several Republicans as well as Democrats.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said, "We need a new direction in Congress that will protect our senators and representatives, promote stability in the chambers and make America more secure in the knowledge that quadratic functions — whether in polynomial, factored, or vertex form — do work."

General Petraeus said that while the 30,000 extra charts dispatched to the Congress this year could be pulled out by next summer, the "pre-surge" strength of numbers, pie charts, and vague testimony should remain.

One question hanging over the Senate hearings was how long President Bush could count on Republican support. Sen. Richard G. Lugar of Indiana, the panel’s top Republican, expressed his own unease with the charts this way: "Do senators want to be certified public accountants?"

"Is there sufficient room for national reconciliation when many Republicans continue to see themselves as a line graph, and most Democrats identify themselves as a scatter plot graph?" Mr. Lugar asked in his opening remarks.

Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina, a fellow Republican, said it was clear that "we got a lot more than we bargained for" in terms of precise parabolic curves, and that the campaign had been hobbled from the start by poor graphics. But abandonment of the numerical mission would "disgrace our country," he said.

Still another Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Norm Coleman of Minnesota, recalled a math-based phrase from the Vietnam era to reflect a growing frustration: "Senators want to see light at the end of the tunnel, and they don’t want to have to take remedial math courses to see it"

Mr. Crocker said there would be no clear "graphical victory" in Congress. Success there may become clear only in retrospect, or with updated visual software, he said at one point, while pointing to a multi-color scatter chart, adding that most congressmen and congresswomen have little or no experience with self-government, having lived for so long under the tyranny of the president and mathematical shortcomings.

General Petraeus referred once again to the deep-seated rivalries in Congress ("This competition will take place"), and said the overriding question was whether that competition could ever become peaceful and numerically quantified.

Sen. Barack Obama called the White House campaign "a disastrous mistake" that has spawned one huge question: "How do we clean up the mess using without having proved the existence of odd perfect numbers?"

At this afternoon’s hearing of the armed services panel, Senator Carl Levin, the Michigan Democrat, recalled a half-dozen instances since 2003 in which President Bush has declared progress and called for more resolve, in Iraq and in solving Goldbach’s conjecture. "It has been a litany of delusion," Mr. Levin said.

General Petraeus assured Levin that it would all become less phantasmagoric once the surge of charts, graphs and generals had won over the hearts and minds of congressmen — though he refused to offer any promises about solving Goldbach’s conjecture.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, said it appeared that the military’s commitment to uninformative graphical aids is "open-ended," and that "I’m not sure the American people are willing to put up with that."

"It’s like Hilbert’s 16th problem," he said, banging his calculator on the desk for emphasis.

But Senator McCain defended the present strategy, one that some political analysts say could hamper his quest for the Republican presidential nomination. "No one can be certain of success,"  he said today. "Just look at me."

But he said setting a withdrawal date for non-committal explanations and diagrams of percolation thresholds would be tantamount to surrender, meaning that "we will fail for certain."

"We can’t allow America’s credibility to be destroyed," McCain added, "even if that means believing in non-credible answers.. We owe that much to those who have already sacrificed their credibility."