WASHINGTON — Even before Gen. David Petraeus began his account of the “substantial” progress brought about by the troop increase in Iraq, congressional critics of President Bush’s policy had come to the depressing conclusion that the “surge” has done what the administration needed it to do.

It has not won the war. It has not achieved reconciliation at the national level in Iraq. But it has bought more political time in Washington, bringing Bush closer than ever to reaching one of his main objectives: keeping large numbers of troops in Iraq beyond Election Day 2008.

Yet if the testimony of Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker was the central act at Monday’s House hearing, Rep. Ike Skelton, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, signaled within minutes of opening the session the one hope that critics of the war have to force a change in course.

Their goal, Skelton made clear, was to move away from a narrow argument over whether the surge has succeeded or failed — the subject on which Petraeus, in a clear and steady voice, offered a small mountain of statistics — to a broader debate about “the overall security of this nation.”

The issue, Skelton insisted, is whether “Iraq is the war worth the risk of breaking our Army and being unable to deal with other risks to our nation.” Thus did the Missouri Democrat issue an indirect plea that those inside the Pentagon who are skeptical of a lengthy engagement in Iraq make their views known. Facing the Petraeus challenge, congressional Democrats are discovering that other generals may be their strongest allies.

The debate about the surge has, in large part, been the foreign policy equivalent of a Republican primary. Bush needed to make enough of a case for progress that he could prevent the defection of significant numbers of Republicans from his approach.

Through a hard sell of the surge in the last six weeks, Bush has held most of his party in line. Petraeus’ central political objective was more to reassure Republicans than to persuade Democrats. Given the president’s veto power and the Democrats’ slim majorities in the House and Senate, this may be enough to keep American troops heavily committed in Iraq for the rest of Bush’s term.

Privately, Democrats acknowledged that they had expected opposition to the war to grow more than it did this summer. “There was some momentum building up in June and July to change the policy,” said a senior Democratic congressional staff member. “But that’s abated. I certainly thought … that September would look like a change month, but now it looks less so.”

Moreover, while Petraeus highlighted the possibility of bringing down troop numbers to “pre-surge levels” by “next summer,” this itself was an admission that the administration’s policy depends upon a continued large presence of American forces. “It looks like Bush will leave office with 100,000 or more troops in Iraq,” said the senior congressional aide, “and the next president will be stuck with this mess.”

Oddly, Bush’s intransigence has caused more problems for Democrats than Republicans. The inability of the new Democratic majority to muster the votes to cut off funds for the war has left the party’s large anti-war constituency furious — even as moderate Democrats push for compromise measures that could get Republicans on record as opposing the president.

That is why Skelton’s opening statement was so important. Only a handful of Republicans are prepared to take on the president directly, but many more might be persuaded to vote for restrictions on deployments in response to what Skelton called “the issue of readiness.”

When Skelton said that “with so many troops in Iraq, I think our response to an unexpected threat would come at a devastating cost,” he offered a direct challenge to the administration: if withdrawing troops from Iraq is dangerous, failing to withdraw them may, in the long run, be even more dangerous.

Politically, said the senior congressional aide, Bush has pacified two of the three constituencies he needed to quiet if he was to continue with his policy — Republicans in Congress and the leading Republican presidential candidates.

But efforts to keep the surge going worry many top commanders at the Pentagon who share Skelton’s alarm over the impact of lengthy tours on the preparedness of the armed forces. Democrats once thought that Republicans would help them end the war. Hidden in plain sight on Monday is the news that Democrats are now hoping that concerned generals will support their case, even if most Republicans won’t.

E.J. Dionne’s e-mail address is postchat(at)aol.com.

© 2007, Washington Post Writers Group

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