If Ben Franklin was alive today he would say only three things in life are predictable, death, taxes and Petraeus-Crocker hearings on TV telling us how well we are doing in Iraq.
I was thinking about old Ben, while watching the Senate Armed Services Committee hearings starring Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker. You should know that watching Congressional hearings is one of my hobbies, along with collecting majolica and watching Pittsburgh Pirates losing ballgames.
A re-run of the Petraeus-Crocker performance of last September, the dynamic duo will be a regular feature on TV if soon-to-be President Gen. McCain is right about this being the hundred-year war. The Iraq hearings are my favorite kind of reality TV show, even though it lacks the suspense of watching the different ways the Pittsburgh Pirates have of losing ball games.
Like most of TV, there is not enough going on the screen during hearings to occupy the human mind. As I watched the Petraeus-Crocker act yesterday, I worked on my taxes. I wanted to hear their explanation of why we are using U.S. dollars -- forget the editorial "we," why are we using my dollars? -- to pay to clean up their towns, to settle their religious differences, and even centuries old tribal scores instead of their oil money?
Petraeus and Crocker are like a team of adagio dancers. Having heard the same questions since time immemorial, nothing throws them off step. I'd like to see them in a Dancing With the Stars episode before they go back to their posts in harm's way.
Occasionally, I would put aside my tax papers and give my undivided attention to the deft way they danced away from the distinguished senators.
Chairman Sen. Levin of Michigan was trying to get a direct answer on the ETA of the end of our commitment. Each time the general spun off in another round of verbiage, going into a flanking, enfilade, or whatever the maneuver taught at the war college in dealing with the enemy is called.
"A yes or no, please," Sen. Levin would ask three or four times after the skirmish with truth during one such Q&A encounter.
I expected the exasperated senator to say, "Can you give us a definite maybe?" before he gave up.
It was too much to expect a timetable for withdrawal. What I wanted to hear was an answer to a simpler question. Given that we already have spent a trillion dollars or so of my money arming and training the Iraqi army and police, why are they still running away from battle as they did in Basra?
Is it part of the all-new improved Iraqi Army's Order of Battle, or some ancient revered folk proverb, that he who runs away lives to fight another day? How was this possible after five years and expenditure of American blood and treasure? Is there some correction in training methods, which might take another trillion or so and a few extra years, which would perfect our mission?
Even if somebody asked that question, I couldn't expect a direct answer.
As entertaining as this grilling of our two top representatives in the field are to hearings hobbyists like myself, I have long since abandoned hope of getting any direct answers.
It was the same way the other week when the Federal Reserve, Treasury and banking community brass tried to explain why it was such a good thing to be spending 30 billion of taxpayers' money to save Bear Stearns. The four blind mice, as I thought of the financial wizards just went round and round in the hearings, skirting the issue that the banking system is on the verge of collapse and they caused it.
My system for processing the information gleaned from all the top-drawer hearings is to assume they are lying to us or otherwise hiding something. Why else would they bother taking the time to show how open they are without actually saying anything?
I may be wrong from time to time. 97% of the time, though, I am right that we are hearing less than the whole truth on any subject.
Congressional hearings are the best weapon of mass distraction ever invented: openness and closeness at the same time.
In this state of mind, I found myself thinking, hey, what was so really bad about withdrawing from Iraq? The general and his diplomat sidekick were saying this is a no, no because the situation was still so fragile and unpredictable. But what would be the worse thing that could happen?
There would be violence and chaos. Shiites would be killing Sunnis. There would be militias fighting each other. There would be suicide bombings in the markets, crime would be rampant? The parliament would be deadlocked. How is this different than what we have there now after five years?
Of course, there would be a vacuum that Al-Qaeda would fill. But wouldn't it be better to have Al-Qaeda out in the open, in one place where we could see them? Wouldn't' it be better to have Osama himself in one place rather than moving from one apparently inaccessible hideaway to another in the tribal mountain areas of Pakistan?
I would even go so far as to say it wouldn't be a waste of taxpayer dollars to send in the Blackwater guys and install him safely in one of our carefully bugged palaces in Baghdad to make it easier for our intelligence apparatus to keep an eye on the man and his minions.
It was clear that it was time to turn off the hearings and come back to the real world of the blind leading the blind.
Of all the pundits I heard the next day making sense out of the nothing I heard, Joe Scarborough on MSNBC's The Morning Joe had the most pithy summary:
"Meanwhile, the guy who started all of this will soon be out there in the stands watching Ranger games."