Petraeus to face all 3 presidential candidates
The hearings on Capitol Hill will be as much about presidential politics as about the past six months of military and diplomatic progress in Iraq.
The Washington Post
WASHINGTON — When Army Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker travel to Capitol Hill on Tuesday, they might be the ones before the microphones, but the cameras will be trained on three of their inquisitors: Sens. John McCain, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama.
The hearings before the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations Committees will be as much about presidential politics as about the past six months of military and diplomatic progress in Iraq.
It has been months since Obama, McCain or Clinton appeared at hearings, but all three White House contenders will take rare breaks from their campaigns to be on hand.
"This is sort of a dress rehearsal for who is best prepared to be commander in chief, who has the best understanding of what has happened, what was wrong in Iraq and how to fix it," noted Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., an Armed Services Committee member and McCain backer.
All last summer, Washington anxiously awaited the September appearances of Petraeus, the commanding U.S. general in Iraq, and Crocker, the top U.S. diplomat in Baghdad, anticipating that their testimony could determine the political viability of continued war.
But this time, the Iraq commander's presentation to Congress collides head-on with a raging presidential campaign and two Democratic candidates — Clinton and Obama — demanding almost the opposite of what he's advising.
His main recommendations have been known for weeks: Draw down the troop buildup that was part of the surge through July, he will say, then wait awhile to make sure the country doesn't fall apart.
"The most interesting part of this is not going to be how Obama and Clinton behave, but how Petraeus behaves," said Kurt Campbell, a military analyst who has advised Democratic presidential candidates.
For the outsize personalities that dominate the two committees, the political preparations for the hearings have been particularly galling. Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joe Biden, D-Del., rejected any suggestion that he move Obama up in the questioning order, rather than stick to the committee's rules on seniority.
"The biggest mistake we could make is politicizing this, looking at this in terms of political advantage," he snapped. "The American people are sick of this ... ."
But even they concede that the attention is unavoidable. "That's a natural thing in middle of a political campaign, that the media will look at the candidates, scrutinize them, read all kinds of things into their answers and their body language, into their greetings and their hugs and their coughs, their sneezes and a few other things," Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., said.
The one-on-ones with the war's key U.S. military and diplomatic figures are probably the candidates' last public chance to engage these officials for months, and the Q's and A's should offer not only insight into the candidates' thinking on the war but also into how they'd deal with those in charge of the conflict.
Recent events in Iraq show how deep the political divisions in Washington run.
Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., a McCain supporter on the Armed Services Committee, said the Iraqi government's inconclusive assault on Shiite militia in Basra is evidence of what happens when a Western military force — the British in this case — withdraws too quickly.
Democrats saw something very different. "We cannot be in that position, where our troops are brought into a communal conflict and have their lives jeopardized by a prime minister who's got a political agenda, not just a military agenda, and who's highly sectarian, with a corrupt administration," Levin said.
In the ideological duel that will unfold Tuesday, McCain will have a distinct logistical advantage, Republicans are quick to note. As the ranking Republican on the Armed Services Committee, he will deliver the second statement and the second set of questions, and will have the right to interject at will. Allies said he is likely to toss out Clinton's statement in the September hearing that it would take "a willing suspension of disbelief" to accept Petraeus's security assessment, and Clinton — lacking seniority — will only be able to watch.
Finally, McCain's positive assessment of progress in Iraq will jibe with the testimony of Petraeus and Crocker.
"There's no strategy to back him up on anything," Chambliss said. "John's independent. John's going to ask what John wants to ask, and probably take as much time as he wants to take and go as many rounds as he wants to go."
In contrast, Clinton, whose seniority ranks ninth of 12, is unlikely to get a word in until late in the session.
Obama may be in even worse shape. The Foreign Relations Committee, famous for its long-winded and assertive chairman, will not begin its hearing until 2:30 p.m., and if all members show, Obama would be 13th to speak — possibly after the evening news.
Information from the Los Angeles Times and McClatchy Newspapers
is included in this report.
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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