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Petraeus Hearing a Campaign Stop for Candidates

Among the senators who grilled Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker on Tuesday was the next president of the United States. Whether that president will be Hillary Clinton, John McCain or Barack Obama hasn't been decided, but all three of the White House hopefuls made Tuesday's hearings on Capitol Hill a kind of campaign stop.

Even before McCain took his seat as the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, the presumptive GOP presidential nominee was on Capitol Hill proclaiming his support for a war that most Americans wish was long over. He was at an early morning rally outside the Capitol of a group calling itself Vets for Freedom, made up of about 200 Iraq war veterans.

"I think your presence here today indicates that the overwhelming majority of veterans who have served and sacrificed in this conflict know that there is no substitute for victory and withdrawal is defeat," he said.

Later, in his opening statement, McCain sounded as though he were describing his own political near-death odyssey last year as a presidential contender: "We've come a long way since early 2007 and quite a distance, even, since Gen. Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker appeared before our committee last September."

But of course what McCain really meant was that a disputed strategy he had strongly endorsed — last year's U.S. troop expansion in Iraq known as the surge — is now widely accepted as having been, at least militarily, a success.

"This means rejecting, as we did in 2007, calls for a reckless and irresponsible withdrawal of our forces at the moment when they are succeeding," he said.

In case that barb against the two Democrats who want to be commander in chief flew by too fast, McCain had another: "The promise of withdrawal of our forces regardless of the consequences would constitute a failure of political and moral leadership."

Clinton, as the junior Democratic senator from New York, had a long wait before it was her turn to speak at the Armed Services hearing. She began with a response to what she called "some statements and suggestions that have been made leading up to this hearing and even during it."

"That it is irresponsible or demonstrates a lack of leadership to advocate withdrawing troops from Iraq in a responsible and carefully planned withdrawal — I fundamentally disagree," she said. "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."

Clinton had a policy prescription of her own for Iraq, one she has made many times on the campaign trail. "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."

Later, at the Foreign Relations committee hearing, Obama had no presidential rivals to contend with. Florida Democrat and Clinton supporter Bill Nelson surprised Chairman Joe Biden by saying he would let Obama jump ahead of him in the speaking order.

Obama was respectful but blunt. Striking a stance similar to Clinton's, he told Crocker he agreed with the ambassador's own words that increased pressure in a measured way could bring about needed political change in Iraq.

"I think the increased pressure in a measured way, in my mind — and this is where we disagree — includes a timetable for withdrawal," he said. "Nobody's asking for a precipitous withdrawal, but I do think that it has to be a measured but increased pressure and a diplomatic surge that includes Iran."

It comes down to a question, Obama said, of what constitutes success in Iraq:

"The problem I have is if the definition of success is so high — no traces of al Qaida and no possibility of reconstitution; a highly effective Iraqi government; a democratic, multi-ethnic, multi-sectarian, functioning democracy; no Iranian influence, at least not of the kind that we don't like — then that portends the possibility of us staying for 20 or 30 years."

Obama said what's really achievable in Iraq may be a messy, sloppy status quo.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.