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Would-be presidents put Petraeus to the test

Wednesday’s hearings with Gen. David Petraeus provided voters a window to see into the thinking of their favorite would-be president and how he would handle the general. There was not a magic moment — the kind of moment you know you’ll see in a campaign ad — the confrontation when one of the would-be presidents caught the general in a devastating quandary.
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Testifying before two Senate committees Tuesday, Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of American forces in Iraq, had something very ugly to deliver to the next president: responsibility for Iraq.

As it stands now, there’s a better-than-even chance that one of the Democrats who grilled Petraeus and envoy Ryan Crocker at Tuesday’s hearings — Sens. Joe Biden, Chris Dodd, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton — will be commander-in-chief 15 months from today.

Iraq will be Clinton’s problem, or that of one of her Democratic presidential rivals.

Clinton, Dodd, Obama, and Biden bemoaned the state Iraq has fallen into and how the president’s decisions that contributed to that nasty outcome.

But there was not any one memorable campaign moment — the kind of moment you know you’ll see in a campaign ad — the confrontation when one of the would-be presidents caught the four-star general or the white-haired envoy in a devastating quandary.

In the evening, after eight hours of testimony by the general and the ambassador, Clinton got her chance to quiz them.

Not calling them liars, but ...She told them their testimony required “a willing suspension of disbelief” — the phrase the English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge used to describe the state of mind a reader of fiction or romantic poetry must have.

She wasn’t exactly calling them liars, but perhaps fiction writers.

Maybe because she'd spent hours sitting listening to Petraeus testify in military techno-speak, Clinton's own language was filled with similar argot: She talked about “the metrics that have been referenced”  and the “advantages and disadvantages accruing post-surge.”

There was no flesh-and-blood anecdote to make it human.

Earlier Tuesday afternoon it was Republican presidential hopeful Sen. John McCain who questioned the general and the envoy.

“Some argue that ethnic cleansing has already taken place” in Baghdad, McCain pointed out to Crocker.

“There clearly has been substantial displacement, mainly of Sunnis but also of Shia. And to be candid, there is still some of that going on,” admitted Crocker.

Then playing the devil's advocate, McCain asked “Why not just let it continue?”

Crocker replied, “To simply say, ‘this is a good thing’ would be, I think, in practical and moral terms roughly equivalent to some of the ethnic cleansing we saw in the Balkans.”

McCain got Crocker to admit, in sardonic diplomatic lingo, that his “level of confidence is under control” — which meant he didn’t have much confidence in Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his government.

Earlier in the day, at the Foreign Relations Committee meeting, Obama told Petraeus and Crocker that if the American people had known at the outset how costly the Iraq deployment would turn out to be, and how many unintended consequences it would have, “most people would have said, ‘That’s a bad deal.’”

This seemed to be an obvious point — and one that undercut Obama’s campaign argument that those, such as Dodd, Biden and Clinton, who voted in 2002 to authorize Bush to invade Iraq should have known better.

“How long will this take, and at what point do we say enough?” Obama wondered.

Neither he nor the witnesses were able to supply anything like a definite answer to his question.

Biden was true to form, somewhat wry, sometimes with a cockeyed grin on his face, sometimes shaking his head as he listened to Petraeus or Crocker, either in apparent skepticism or perhaps ruing the sheer ugliness that awaits the new president.

Dodd, in contrast, mostly looked glum and seemed immensely weary when, during a break in the hearing, he spoke to reporters. “I’m still optimistic” that Congress might pass legislation forcing President Bush to significantly reduce the number of troops in Iraq, beyond the number — roughly 30,000 — that Petraeus recommended.

But the votes in Congress are not yet there.

Neither Biden nor his Democratic presidential rivals on the panel had anything other than pessimism and regret to offer in their allotted five minutes.

He added, “If we killed or captured every jihadist in Iraq tomorrow, we would still face a major sectarian war.… We’d still have a major war on our hands.”

A former presidential contender, Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, who dipped his toe in New Hampshire presidential waters last summer before deciding not to run, was the least deferential interrogator among the Democrats, accusing Crocker and Petraeus of “myopia,” an excessive focus on Iraq and a neglect of other al-Qaida venues such as Pakistan.

It was one of the Democrats on the committee who is not running for president who brought out into the open the issue of what the next president will inherit.

“Handing that situation off with 130,000 troops to the next president, what will be your analysis of the diplomatic conditions and the chances of success under those conditions?” asked Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla.

Crocker answered that he was not focusing that far ahead right now.

A job for the next president
But Nelson’s question was revealing in that it seemed to assume that the new president will face the job of extracting 130,000 American troops from Iraq, not some lesser number.

How would the Democratic would-be president bring Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds together in what some committee members on Monday called “reconciliation”?

That word made it sound as if the warring groups had at some point been amicable and only needed to recover that amity.

Another question seemed obvious as the presidential rivals parried with Petraeus and Crocker: How could the Democratic presidential nominee next year, whoever it ends up being, mobilize Democratic voters on a platform of such unrelieved grimness?

Obama’s question to Crocker seemed to capture the glumness of it all: “How do we clean up the mess?” he lamented.