Enough About Iraq -- Let's Talk About Me

By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Presidential politics are never far from the congressional debate on Iraq. As Gen. David Petraeus testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee yesterday, the two merged into a seamless whole.

Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), a presidential contender, took his seat on the dais in the Hart Senate Office Building, popped a piece of Nicorette gum into his mouth, opened a green folder and began reading a memo, partially visible to reporters behind him. It said:

To: Barack

From: Ben & Denis

Date: September 11, 2007

Re: Iraq Speech -- Differences

As you get ready for press around your speech on Iraq, we wanted to make sure you have on one piece of paper the principle [sic] differences between your speech on Iraq and the most comprehensive on Iraq given by Senator Clinton.

It further reminded Obama that "you argue that by withdrawing 1-2 combat brigades a month you can get all those units out by the end of next year (2008)."

Obama, as it happens, is to deliver a major campaign speech about Iraq in Iowa today -- so it isn't entirely surprising that he would be preparing some political barbs for the Democratic front-runner, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.). Still, Obama's juxtaposition -- contemplating the nakedly political as he prepared to question the top U.S. general in Iraq and the U.S. ambassador to Iraq -- was stark.

Not that Obama was the only senator with one foot on the campaign trail yesterday as Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker spoke to the Foreign Relations and Armed Services committees. With five current presidential candidates on the two panels, not to mention four past presidential candidates and three others who have recently contemplated presidential runs, it could hardly be otherwise.

Clinton, herself a member of the Armed Services Committee, at first entered the hearing room largely unnoticed; she then left and reentered moments later as part of Petraeus's entourage -- basking in the clicks of hundreds of camera shutters.

Foreign Relations Chairman Joe Biden (Del.), an also-ran in the presidential race, displayed his disdain for the more popular Obama by conspicuously reading a newspaper while the Illinois senator questioned the witnesses. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) used his place as top Republican on the Armed Services Committee to direct a zinger at Obama. Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), a senior member of the Foreign Relations Committee but a presidential dark horse, wasted no time getting out a press release that took a shot at both Obama and Clinton.

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