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Gen. David Petraeus, meet your next commander in chief.
The top commander in Iraq found himself in the middle of presidential politics Tuesday — literally — as he was questioned by White House candidates politically and physically on either side during a congressional hearing.
The presidential hopefuls made a rare return to Capitol Hill for the high-profile session in which Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker delivered their assessment of the war, now entering its sixth year.
Republican Sen. John McCain elicited answers that he hopes will bolster his call to stay the course. Democratic Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama argued U.S. troops should come home — even if that means, as Obama said, “a messy, sloppy status quo” rather than sticking around for hard-to-achieve improvements.
They toned down their heated campaign rhetoric to fit the decorum of a congressional hearing — avoiding criticizing one another by name and questioning the four-star general in measured tones.
But the divisions were clear. McCain said promises to withdraw forces “would constitute a failure of political and moral leadership.”
“I fundamentally disagree,” Clinton said later, when it was her turn to speak. “Rather, I think it could be fair to say that it might well be irresponsible to continue the policy that has not produced the results that have been promised time and time again.”
McCain and Clinton sit on the Armed Services Committee; Obama serves on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
The four-term Arizona senator asked questions designed to support his argument that the United States should maintain its troop presence in Iraq and that withdrawal would prove disastrous.
He asked Petraeus about the Iraqi government’s military operation to quell violence in Basra, recent attacks on the U.S.-occupied Green Zone, the threat al-Qaida poses in Iraq and Iranian involvement. He also asked Crocker about the likelihood of a long-term security arrangement in Iraq.
At the same time, McCain was able to put both officials on record that a certain level of troops is likely to remain in Iraq for years to come. McCain has said U.S. troops could be in Iraq for 100 years, citing the half-century or longer U.S. presence in South Korea and other parts of the world where forces are based to deter conflict, not fight one.
McCain was the only presidential candidate to get a chance for an opening statement besides his questioning as he’s the top Republican on the committee. He used that nine-minute statement to put a positive spin on developments in Iraq over the past year, saying security has improved dramatically and political reconciliation has moved forward.
He argued that “much more needs to be done” on security, political and economic fronts, but that “we are no longer staring into the abyss of defeat, and we can now look ahead to the genuine prospect of success.”
“I do not want to keep our troops in Iraq a minute longer than necessary to secure our interests there. Our goal — my goal — is an Iraq that no longer needs American troops,” McCain said. “And I believe we can achieve that goal, perhaps sooner than many imagine. But I also believe that to promise a withdrawal of our forces, regardless of the consequences, would constitute a failure of political and moral leadership.”
HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON
Clearly at odds with McCain, the New York senator argued that there has been a lack of political progress in Iraq to justify the increase in troops last year.
She said the fight diverts military resources from other needs around the world. She also cited studies on the increased mental strain on troops serving repeat deployments, with more than a quarter showing signs of anxiety, depression and acute stress.
She placed the blame not just on President Bush, but also supporters of his policy — in other words, McCain.
“The administration and supporters of the administration’s policy often talk about the cost of leaving Iraq, yet ignore the greater costs of continuing the same failed policy,” she said, reading from prepared remarks that aides said she wrote.
“I think it’s time to begin an orderly process of withdrawing our troops, start rebuilding our military and focusing on the challenges posed by Afghanistan, the global terrorist groups and other problems that confront America,” she said.
Clinton huddled with Petraeus before the hearing began, and during her questioning asked him what conditions would cause him to tell the president that the current strategy is not working. He responded that the factors include the status of the enemy, Iraqi forces, local governance and the economic and political situations, but “it’s not a mathematical exercise.”
Clinton also objected to Crocker’s statement that the Iraqi parliament will get a chance to review a U.S.-Iraqi agreement that would give legal authority for American troops to remain in Iraq, but Congress will not. “It seems odd,” she said, adding that she has legislation that would require congressional review.
Clinton said Iraq presents a “very difficult dilemma” for decision-makers. “If this were easy or if there were a very clear way forward, we could all perhaps agree on the facts about how to build toward a resolution that is in the best interests of the United States, that would stabilize Iraq and would meet our other challenges around the world.”
Obama pressed Petraeus and Crocker on their standard for success in Iraq. The Illinois senator and Democratic front-runner said he worries that the goals — completely eliminating al-Qaida and Iranian influences — may be impossible to achieve and troops could be there for 20 or 30 years in a fruitless effort.
“If, on the other hand, our criteria is a messy, sloppy status quo but there’s not huge outbreaks of violence, there’s still corruption, but the country is struggling along, but it’s not a threat to its neighbors and it’s not an al-Qaida base, that seems to me an achievable goal within a measurable timeframe,” he said.
Obama said Bush’s troop increase reduce the violence, but the “breathing room” it created has not been used effectively as rivals jockey for political power in Basra. Obama argued that the best way to resolve the political situation is by withdrawing troops in a measured way that increases pressure on both sides.
He also said any future steps should include U.S. diplomatic engagement with Iran. “I do not believe we’re going to be able to stabilize the position without them,” he said.
“I continue to believe that the original decision to go into Iraq was a massive strategic blunder (and) that the two problems (of withdrawing troops) that you’ve pointed out — al-Qaida in Iraq and increased Iranian influence in the region — are a direct result of that original decision,” Obama told Petraeus and Crocker.
Obama opposed the war while rivals Clinton and McCain voted in 2002 to authorize the use of military force in Iraq.
Obama received some senatorial courtesy from Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., even though he’s a Clinton backer. Nelson should have gone before Obama in the questioning, but three hours into the hearing he let Obama go ahead so he could avoid a scheduling problem. Obama had two campaign fundraisers to attend.