04/17/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Senators Grill Petraeus; My Brother Messages Me From Iraq

Just as yesterday's Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Iraq was winding down, I received an IM from my 24-year-old brother, Sam, a soldier currently serving in Iraq.

ME: hey! i'm at the senate right now, listening to gen petraeus!
SAM: Sweet!
SAM: How is it??
ME: fascinating
ME: and incredibly dull at the same time
SAM: [My wife] and I are very interested in which questions the presidentila candidates asked
SAM: For the insight into their priorities/understanding of defense

Sam's not alone. Judging from the celebrity reception Obama received at the afternoon's hearing, everybody wants to know what questions the presidential candidates are asking, looking to parse their positions, because, of course, one of the candidates will be inheriting the mess that is this war.

Yet Sam bristled at the thought of the general being grilled by a roomful of senators.

SAM: As we've said already, it's a complex issue and I don't think any Senate hearing can really do justice to it
SAM: In my experience, unless you have SERIOUSLY good reason, you should always defer to the judgment of the commander on the ground
SAM: In this case, General Petraeus is a caring, competent, and intelligent commander whose strategies and ideas are vastly improving the security situation. I don't see why the Senate committee should feel like they would be able to make better decisions or recommendations than he is already providing

Sam's concerns reflect the tensions between political authority and military authority that have been roiling beneath discussions of Iraq since the beginning. At first, it was "Who's in charge?" Meaning the White House or the Pentagon? Rumsfeld or the generals?

Increasingly, it's "What's the goal?" Is it a political or a military one? Are we staying in Iraq to foster a stable government or to contain an enemy? And if the latter, which enemy?

SAM: The true issue here is defining success - what are the measures being used?
SAM: It's impossible for anyone to be successful with a project or task if they don't know what goals they are trying to achieve
SAM: If the goals are strictly political (ie, unfuck the Iraqi government), then the amount of resources dedicated to that effort are woefully inadequate
SAM: If the goals are strictly security based (ie, neutralize the insurgency's ability to fight effectively), then we are well on our way and I think that the Counterinsurgency strategy that General Petraeus has spearheaded is incredibly effective

Remarkably, given how far away he was from yesterday's Senate meeting-- or perhaps not remarkable at all, given that he is trying to implement the decisions of the very people in that room-- the question plaguing Sam is the question the senators were asking, which is the question the country wants answered, which is the question the president has somehow failed for five years to answer: What are we doing there?

And, beyond that, an even bigger question: Who gets to decide? On the front, the military and the politicians are dug deep into their own tug of war. General Petraeus is saying we can keep making small gains toward peace and security if only we have more time, money, resources, and soldiers. And the politicians are saying we are all tapped out -- even Petraeus acknowledged that occasionally the US must "sometimes show we have emotions other than endless patience."

Meantime, all of us continue to cope with the day-to-day (and dollar-to-dollar) realities of the war. For Sam, that means patrolling the streets in an armored vehicle, living next to a landfill that is routinely set on fire and enduring the effects of downing too much chai tea with the local Sheikh. In the middle of our chat he disappeared abruptly, and I felt the wave of anxiety that will be familiar to all of us who have skin in this game.

A few minutes later he returned.

SAM: Sorry about that.
ME: it's ok your'e at war
SAM: True. At the moment, with my colon
ME: lol
SAM: Today, the colon is winning