The Next Campaign Stop: Iraq Hearings

By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 7, 2008

When Army Gen. David H. Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker travel to Capitol Hill tomorrow, 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 promise to be as much about presidential politics as about the past six months of military and diplomatic progress in Iraq. 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.

Their return engagement is eliciting no more than shrugs -- except on the political front. It has been months since Obama, McCain or Clinton appeared at a hearing, but all three contenders for the White House will take rare breaks from their campaigns to be on hand. Although the committee chairmen are loath to admit it, two relatively junior Democratic senators and one ranking Republican are likely to steal the show.

"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 O. Graham (R-S.C.), an Armed Services Committee member and McCain backer.

For the three candidates -- and for the Senate at large -- there is little expectation of surprises. Last September, lawmakers anxiously watched for cracks, either in Republican support of President Bush's war policies or in Democratic opposition.

"It's all completely predictable this time, what everyone is going to say," said Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), a senior Foreign Relations Committee member and Obama backer.

If anything, the campaigns have dug the divisions deeper. Besides Bush, no other politician is as vested in the success of the troop increase and new counterinsurgency strategy as is McCain. He helped promote the troop increase, then used the fall and winter's drop in violence to resurrect his campaign. Graham said McCain has the opportunity tomorrow to make those successes his own -- and to challenge his would-be Democratic rivals to prove them illusory.

With Obama and Clinton (N.Y.) still dueling for the support of the Democratic voters most disenchanted with the war, neither is about to break from promises to end it.

"We have more than 150,000 Americans in the middle of two wars, brave men and women on their second or third or fourth tours of duty in Iraq, a place where we're spending $400 million a day to help a government that refuses to help itself, a war that never should have been authorized and never should have been waged," Obama told the North Dakota State Democratic Convention on Friday.

For the outsize personalities that dominate the two committees, the political preparations for the hearings have been particularly galling. Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joseph R. Biden Jr. (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 said. "The American people are sick of this."

But even they concede that the attention is unavoidable. "That's a natural thing in the 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 M. Levin (D-Mich.) grumbled.

Recent events in Iraq -- particularly, the Iraqi government's inconclusive assault on Shiite militia in the southern port city of Basra -- show how deep the political divisions in Washington run. Graham gave the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki an "A" for effort but a "D" for execution, suggesting the assault showed that Iraqis are ready to defend national unity but still need U.S. military support. Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), a McCain supporter on the Armed Services Committee, said Basra is evidence of what happens when a Western military force -- the British in this case -- withdraws too quickly.

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