Rupert Cornwell: Never underestimate the power of a general
If America is the new Rome, all one can say is that standards for Roman triumphs have dropped.
Back in old republican Rome, you had to defeat a foreign enemy and bring the army home to merit this signal honour. These days, in the imperial America of George W Bush, all you have to do is stave off total disaster and make the case that the troops should stay in a faraway country even longer.
Thus it has been for David Howell Petraeus Mesopotamianus as he returned from Baghdad this week to deliver his speech to Congress on the progress of the war in Iraq in general, and the state of the Bush surge in particular.
For all their differences, everyone – be they Democrat or Republican, supporter or opponent of the war – could agree on one thing: the top US commander in Iraq, the man on whom Mr Bush has pinned his hopes of salvaging his war and his presidency, is a great guy, a straight shooting soldier, and one of the country's very finest sons.
Monday in the House of Representatives was, of course, but the first of the General's two days on Capitol Hill. Yesterday, when he went to the Senate to face Hillary, Obama, and other Democratic White House candidates, would be tougher. But first impressions count most, and the same basic rule applies – you don't mess with the troops.
The public may have lost patience with a president who has lost touch with reality in Iraq, and with a squabbling Congress unable to change his policy. But when a square-jawed general, his uniform weighed with stars and medals, strides into the hearing room, all disbelief is suspended.
The numbers in a poll on Monday in The New York Times made the point as no words could. Who, it asked, did the public most trust to bring the war to a successful end? An overwhelming 68 per cent replied, America's military commanders. The President scored a dismal 5 per cent, and Congress a scarcely more flattering 21 per cent.
But the real winner of the general's trip to Washington, paradoxically, will almost certainly be none other than Mr Bush himself. The timing, of course, was perfect, coinciding with the sixth anniversary of 9/11, and thus subliminally reinforcing the bogus connection drawn by the White House between the terrorist attacks of 2001 and its disastrous "pre-emptive" war in Iraq.
For Mr Bush, only two audiences have really mattered this week. The first, and less important, was the Republican presidential candidates. Thus far, they have been supportive, limiting criticism to the handling of the war, rather than its intrinsic merits. General Petraeus had to assure them that things were finally heading in the right direction, and he seems to have done so. The second, and by far the most important, was the dozen or so Republicans in the Senate who have expressed varying degrees of doubt about whether the US should still be in Iraq.
Not long ago, the Petraeus report was billed as the make-or-break moment. There are 49 Senate Republicans. By this summer, enough of them wobbled on Iraq to question the party's ability to muster the 41 votes needed to sustain a filibuster. Without a filibuster, the Democratic-controlled Congress would be able to bring matters to a head, with legislation demanding Mr Bush set a timetable for withdrawal.
But, the President urged, wait for Petraeus, and the thin red line held. Now it too looks stronger. The general's line that the surge is working, and that a troop drawdown can begin this year, appears to have convinced most of the doubters to give the White House more time to put Iraq in order.
So, huff and puff as they will, Congressional Democrats can do nothing, for the next few months at least. A besieged White House can meanwhile savour the the rare pleasure of watching the opposite party tear itself apart, as the anti-war Democratic base vents its frustration and fury on a leadership that cannot deliver on the promises that carried Democrats to victory in the midterm elections just 10 months ago.
Such is the Petraeus effect in the Washington political hothouse. In the real world, of soldiers coming home in coffins, of Iraqi civilians slaughtered in car bombs and a country coming apart, it is another matter.
If the general has his way, by mid-summer 2008 US troop strength in Iraq... er, 130,000 men - exactly what it was before the surge began in January.
Barring a miracle there thus will be 100,000 or more US soldiers in Iraq when President Bush passes the poisoned chalice to his (probably Democratic) successor in January 2009, even though (barring another miracle) Iraq's feuding factions will not have reached the political settlement the surge was supposed to have foster. But then again, Roman triumphs ain't what they used to be.