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Iraq Hearings Prove Dems Should Move On

By Daniel Henninger

Hillary Clinton, as the clock struggled toward the final hour of the Petraeus-Crocker hearings this week, reminded the two witnesses that it was September 11. "I started my morning today at Ground Zero," said the New York senator, not looking at the men but at the papers on the desk before her, "where once again the names of the nearly 3,000 victims of the attack on our country were read solemnly in the rain. We have seen Osama bin Laden reappear on our television sets, essentially taunting us. We have the most recent reports out of Germany of terrorists plotting against American assets, who have been trained in Pakistan."

These remarks were delivered without passion. It was expected that the Petraeus-Crocker hearings would be two days of high drama. They were not. Gen. Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker were questioned about Iraq by Democrats on three full committees, including five candidates for the presidency, and the hearings were flat. Could it be the air is going out of Iraq as a hot political issue?

If true, it is good news. Good news, first of all, for this country, whose people may have grown tired of the war but are more so with the war's corrosive domestic politics.

Good news, too, for the Democrats. The Democrats in Congress need to put some space between themselves and the Web-footed antiwar movement. MoveOn.org's "General Betray Us" ad in the New York Times made it difficult for any Democrat to breathe fire at Gen. Petraeus. MoveOn.org pre-used all that political capital. A malady endemic to the Web is that much of the Netroots is essentially narcissistic. That ad proved it's more about them than about elected Democrats. The politicians had better figure this out. A marriage of two narcissists often proves difficult.

Of course the storms could return to Iraq. The insurgency could do another Samarra mosque; Iran or Syria might search the inventory and ship in a weapon exponentially more lethal than car bombs. The umpteenth leaked scandal could appear, but that well looks drained.

People at home tire of wars mainly because of the battlefield, not because of politics. And the battlefield in Iraq has manifestly improved, no matter how many examples can be found of recalcitrant militias. As a political matter, the measurements Gen. Petraeus presented of the counterinsurgency's progress are too wide and deep to be decisively refuted. The Democrats picked at the numbers but never undermined the core message. The "cumulative trajectory," said Mr. Crocker in ambassadorspeak, is upward.

More evidence that the politics of Iraq is losing altitude is that committee Democrats spoke less about violence and more about "reconciliation." Assuredly, if violence still floated, they wouldn't have spent so much time on Nouri al-Maliki and the internal politics of Iraq. The Democrats in Congress have become habituated to having outside forces, a deus ex machina, create and carry their arguments for them on the war. They waved opinion polls, which worked because the insurgency delivered so much bloodshed to the front pages. The Petraeus counterinsurgency has reduced that effect. So now the authority repeatedly cited at the hearings was the Government Accountability Office on reconciliation. The GAO isn't going to grip the public.

The hearings hurt Dems at the margins of the military debate as well. They've proposed, for instance, pulling U.S. troops back into primarily a "counterterrorism" role. But the hearings let Prof. Petraeus, an acknowledged expert on the subject, deliver a quick tutorial: "To do counterterrorism requires conventional as well as all types of special operations forces, and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets." If the goal is to take away sanctuary from al-Qaeda terrorists, Gen. Petraeus said, "that is something that is not just done by counterterrorist forces per se but . . . by conventional forces as well." The ability to make these distinctions may be the reason the surge is producing progress.

Now, it appears, the next argument is going to be over troop levels. Led by Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi, congressional Democrats have spent their majority so far seeking a troop-pullout date, and failing for lack of 60 votes in the Senate. That isn't going to happen now. After Mr. Bush in his speech tonight announces a 30,000 troop reduction by next summer, a prolonged argument over this or that troop level will be too arcane to move the public.

As a political debate, the Iraq war has been drained. There's not much more to get out of it. The hearings proved that. The one fresh, forward-moving issue that emerged from the hearings, raised by Joe Lieberman, was whether we should crack back at Iran (or Syria), which is costing American lives in Iraq. But for Democrats, this subject is off the table. So what does that leave them for the next 14 months? Are they going to bet the ranch on Iraq being in flames next fall? Most likely, it won't be. If Iraq gradually improves, most Americans will be relieved or rejoice. If Net-rooted Democratic candidates can't bring themselves to do that, they need to change the subject.

There is one campaignable question begging for an answer: Was the Iraq war worth it? It's a legitimate question. Democrats, notably Hillary Clinton, have said Iraq distracted us from the global war on terror. Nothing would be more useful for our politics than that these presidential candidates should debate what they would do to contain Islamic terrorism.

This would push us beyond the insular Bush versus Pelosi smackdown evident yet again this week. Germany, Britain and indeed Japan are all struggling to shape a security and legal framework to stop these relentless bombers. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe resigned Wednesday in part over anti-terror policy. In Germany, which foiled an Islamic-led bomb plot last week (as did the Brits in July), Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble has set off a debate, mirroring ours, over the structure of his nation's anti-terror laws. France's President Nicolas Sarkozy wants 1,000 surveillance cameras in Paris.

The American public watched this week as candidates Clinton, Biden, Obama and Dodd denounced Iraq as a failure. OK, got it. But before January 2009 arrives, I'd rather know what each will--or won't--do to fight the war on terror. Sen. Clinton was quite right to remind us that Tuesday was September 11. The emotions recede. The implications do not.

Daniel Henninger is deputy editor of The Wall Street Journal's editorial page.

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