It was always going to be a tough day for the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, who testified today via teleconference before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Crocker's job was to convince members of Congress that the United States is making progress in Iraq and that the surge of troops into the war-torn nation is working.
In his testimony, Crocker acknowledged that while political progress has been made in Iraq, the overarching sense of fear indicates that the nation still has a long way to go.
"If there is one word I would use to sum up the atmosphere in Iraq — on the streets, in the countryside, in the neighborhoods and at the national level — that word would be fear," Crocker said.
The committee is a melting pot of bipartisan frustration with the U.S. Iraq policy. Democrats John Kerry, Russ Feingold and Barbara Boxer protect the left flank. But more importantly, Republicans Dick Lugar, Chuck Hagel and George Voinovich are all critical of the surge in words, if not their votes.
A majority of U.S. senators supported a proposal Wednesday to withdraw U.S. combat troops from Iraq by April, but Republicans blocked an up or down vote by insisting on a procedural motion that requires 60 votes.
Ohio's Voinovich, a recent GOP defector from the administration's Iraq strategy, became animated as he addressed Crocker, stating that the United States has a limited amount of time in Iraq.
"Its urgent," Voinovich said with a raised voice. "Time is running out."
Questioning what Crocker was doing to persuade the Iraqi government to improve, Voinovich repeatedly asked: "What are you doing? What are you doing?"
"That is a point we have made to the Iraqi leadership," Crocker responded, adding, "We are buying time at a cost of the lives of our soldiers. I don't think the prime minister fails to understand this."
One of four Republicans to support a failed Democratic measure to withdraw combat troops from Iraq, Nebraska's Hagel said the United States shouldn't be buying time.
"Buy time for what?" Hagel asked. "A political reconciliation process that is not occurring. That is not working? I am a bit puzzled. If in fact we're buying time, for what? How much is enough time? We're in our fifth year and we're not going forward. In fact I think we're going backward."
No senators returned to Hagel's questions during the panel.
Crocker also warned lawmakers of relying on the list of benchmarks put forth by the White House to measure success in Iraq. A midterm report from the Bush administration to Congress showed mixed results — only eight of 18 benchmarks have been met.
Another assessment of the situation in Iraq from top military commanders is due to the White House in September.
"The longer I am here, the more I am persuaded that progress in Iraq cannot be analyzed solely in terms of these discreet, precisely defined benchmarks because, in many cases, these benchmarks do not serve as reliable measures of everything that is important — Iraqi attitudes toward each other and their willingness to work toward political reconciliation," Crocker said.
Committee Chairman Sen. Joe Biden, Democrat, firebrand and presidential candidate, took Crocker to task on that point, asking why the benchmarks in place weren't good assessors of success.
Crocker may have been thankful for the spotty A/V connection that interrupted the outset of the hearing, because just as he was gearing up for his answer to Biden the line went dead and the Senate panel was left without its witness.
But even when Crocker's video feed from Baghdad was restored, he was forced to face the question again and again: How, if the benchmarks aren't the way to assess success, is the American public to gauge the war.
"There has been zero progress on many of the benchmarks," Kerry told Crocker. "Now you're saying it's not the benchmarks, but the process. … So the goal posts have been moving."
Crocker had said earlier this week that he thought more Iraqis were interested in getting steady electricity than in satisfying the benchmarks their government is shooting for.
California's Boxer said her research shows there is less electricity available in Iraq today than there was a year ago.
"So if it's not the benchmarks, but the electricity, aren't we failing there as well?" Boxer asked.
Crocker said the electricity is still limited in Iraq for a variety of reasons, including continued attacks on power lines by terrorists. He said a withdrawal of troops would not help that situation.
He did not try to say the security situation in Iraq is ideal. "I'm not trying to gild any lilies here," he said. Crocker argued that withdrawing American combat troops would undercut any strides the surge had made in the security situation, particularly in Anbar province, where he said there was marked improvement.
Biden told Crocker that the United States could not logistically maintain the 160,000 combat troops currently in Iraq and that by next year there would be a drawdown of some kind by attrition. He argued that the government should be federalized into more distinct states and that the administration should seek more involvement on the world stage.
"We're not stayin', Mr. Ambassador," Biden said. "We're not stayin' and there's not much time so we'd better make this the world's problem."