The top military commander in Iraq faced the likely next commander in chief Tuesday, delivering a status report that could shape the campaign for the presidency.
All three candidates — Sens. John McCain, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama — sit on committees that received an assessment of the war's progress from Army Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker.
Their political division over the war — McCain supports a continuation while the Democrats say they would withdraw troops — spilled over into the congressional hearing room. Clinton began her appearance by chastising McCain — without mentioning him by name — for saying Democratic calls for a withdrawal are irresponsible and show a "lack of leadership."
Obama, who had earlier in the day criticized McCain for supporting the war from the beginning, pressed Petraeus and Crocker for a standard of success.
Rarely does a congressional event draw the candidates away from the campaign trail in the midst of a closely fought race, but the general's appearance gave them an opportunity to restate their position on the war while interacting with the military brass one of them will command come January.
McCain and Clinton serve on the Armed Services Committee, which heard from Petraeus and Crocker in the morning. Obama serves on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
McCain: Troops in Iraq for years to come
The four-term Arizona senator asked Petraeus about the Iraqi government's military operation to quell violence in Basra, recent attacks on the U.S.-occupied Green Zone, the threat al-Qaida poses in Iraq and Iranian involvement. He also asked Crocker about the likelihood of a long-term security arrangement in Iraq.
It was a direct line of questioning that appeared designed to generate answers that would bolster McCain's argument that despite the recent flashes of violence, the United States should maintain its troop presence in Iraq and withdrawal — as Democrats favor — would prove disastrous.
At the same time, McCain was able to put both officials on record that a certain level of troops is likely to remain in Iraq for years to come. Crocker agreed with that assessment. McCain has said U.S. troops could be in Iraq for 100 years, citing the half-century or longer U.S. presence in South Korea and other parts of the world where forces are based to deter conflict, not fight one.
Democrats have criticized McCain, contending that he backs a 100-year war.
Earlier, in his opening statement, McCain put a positive spin on developments in Iraq over the past year, saying security has improved dramatically and political reconciliation has moved forward since the United States shifted course from what he called four years of mismanagement that brought the U.S.-led war "almost to the point of no return."
He argued that "much more needs to be done" on security, political and economic fronts, but that "we are no longer staring into the abyss of defeat, and we can now look ahead to the genuine prospect of success."
"I do not want to keep our troops in Iraq a minute longer than necessary to secure our interests there. Our goal — my goal — is an Iraq that no longer needs American troops," McCain said in a nine-minute statement. "And I believe we can achieve that goal, perhaps sooner than many imagine. But I also believe that to promise a withdrawal of our forces, regardless of the consequences, would constitute a failure of political and moral leadership."
Clinton: War diverts military resources
Clearly at odds with McCain, the New York senator argued that there has been a lack of political progress in Iraq to justify the increase in troops last year.
"I fundamentally disagree," Clinton said of McCain's criticism of Democrats, reading from prepared remarks that aides said she wrote. "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."
She said the fight diverts military resources from other needs around the world. She also cited studies on the increased mental strain on troops serving repeat deployments, with more than a quarter showing signs of anxiety, depression and acute stress.
She placed the blame not just on President Bush, but also supporters of his policy — in other words, McCain.
"The administration and supporters of the administration's policy often talk about the cost of leaving Iraq, yet ignore the greater costs of continuing the same failed policy," she said, reading from prepared remarks that aides said she wrote.
"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," she said.
She pressed Petraeus on what conditions would have to exist for him to recommend to the president that the current strategy is not working. He responded that the factors include the status of the enemy, Iraqi forces, local governance and the economic and political situations, but "it's not a mathematical exercise."
Clinton also objected to Crocker's statement that the Iraqi parliament will get a chance to review a U.S.-Iraqi agreement that would give legal authority for American troops to remain in Iraq, but Congress will not. "It seems odd," she said, adding that she has legislation that would require congressional review.
Clinton said Iraq presents a "very difficult dilemma" for decision-makers. "If this were easy or if there were a very clear way forward, we could all perhaps agree on the facts about how to build toward a resolution.
Obama: Start bringing troops home
Obama pressed Petraeus and Crocker on their standard for success in Iraq. The Illinois senator and Democratic front-runner said he worries that the goals — completely eliminating al-Qaida and Iranian influences — may be impossible to achieve and troops could be there for 20 or 30 years in a fruitless effort.
"If, on the other hand, our criteria is a messy, sloppy status quo but there's not huge outbreaks of violence, there's still corruption, but the country is struggling along, but it's not a threat to its neighbors and it's not an al-Qaida base, that seems to me an achievable goal within a measurable timeframe," he said.
Obama said Bush's troop increase reduce the violence, but the "breathing room" it created has not been used effectively as rivals jockey for political power in Basra. Obama argued that the best way to resolve the political situation is by withdrawing troops in a measured way that increases pressure on both sides.
He also said any future steps should include U.S. diplomatic engagement with Iran. "I do not believe we're going to be able to stabilize the position without them," he said.
"I continue to believe that the original decision to go into Iraq was a massive strategic blunder (and) that the two problems (of withdrawing troops) that you've pointed out — al-Qaida in Iraq and increased Iranian influence in the region — are a direct result of that original decision," Obama told Petraeus and Crocker.
Obama opposed the war while rivals Clinton and McCain voted in 2002 to authorize the use of military force in Iraq.
Obama received some senatorial courtesy from Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., even though he's a Clinton backer. Nelson should have gone before Obama in the questioning, but three hours into the hearing he let Obama go ahead so he could avoid a scheduling problem. Obama had two campaign fundraisers to attend.
Earlier in the day, Obama criticized McCain on NBC's TODAY show. "John McCain has not offered any clear point at which he suggests it's time for us to move our troops home," Obama said.