By Susan Milligan, Globe Staff
WASHINGTON -- In a day-long grilling by senators demanding answers to the resolution of the US occupation in Iraq, the chief American commander there had one absolute certainty even before he testified: one of his questioners is going to be the next president, and the future of the Iraq mission will hinge on the results of the November election.
All three remaining major presidential candidates -- Republican John McCain and Democrats Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama -- had their chance today to question both General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker on the progress toward military and political stability in Iraq.
Leaving the campaign trail for the Senate committee hearings gave all three contenders the rare opportunity to be both senator and prospective commander-in-chief, as each used the issue to trumpet their talking points on resolving the conflict in Iraq.
The hearings also hinted at the fall campaign. Democrats, aware that many voters have turned their attention from the war to the faltering economy, hammered the top US officials in Iraq on why the United States is still spending tens of billions of dollars for rebuilding and safeguarding Iraq, instead of forcing Iraq to use its extensive oil revenues.
Republicans peppered Petraeus and Crocker with questions about bringing an end to the unpopular war, but praised them for military advances in Iraq and underscored the US national security interests in achieving a stable Iraq.
McCain offered the rosiest view of the success of the troop build-up last year and delivered quick questions that elicited responses that fit his campaign pronouncements on the looming danger of Iran and the continuing threat from al-Qaeda in Iraq. The answers also affirmed McCain's assessment -- derided roundly by his Democratic opponents -- that the US military is likely to have a presence in Iraq for some time.
The United States, he said, is "no longer staring into the abyss of defeat, and we can now look ahead to the genuine prospect of success."
But success, McCain warned, demands staying in Iraq until the country is stable. "This means rejecting, as we did in 2007, the calls for a reckless and irresponsible withdrawal of our forces at the moment when they are succeeding,'' said the Arizona senator, whose extended opening remarks as senior Republican on the Armed Services Committee drew hisses and bellowed objections from demonstrators in the hearing room.
Clinton and Obama, meanwhile, used their time to reiterate their pledges to begin withdrawing combat troops from Iraq once in the White House and completing the withdrawal during 2010 -- and both delivered their remarks in ways that addressed criticisms of each on the Iraq issue.
Clinton, whom antiwar Democrats complain has not fully accounted for her 2002 vote authorizing the war, began her questions with a lengthy speech against Bush administration policy. Obama, whom Clinton has dismissed as long on rhetoric and short on specifics, opened with a series of detailed questions about internal Shi'ite conflict in Basra, and the extent to which Iranian influence in Iraq should be tolerated.
Clinton took a quick shot at McCain, saying the human and monetary costs of staying in Iraq were being ignored by those, like McCain, who warned of the costs of leaving. "I think it could be fair to say it might well be irresponsible to continue the policy that has not produced the results that have been promised time and time again,'' Clinton said, seemingly oblivious to the cluster of photographers and cameramen capturing her words for posterity.
After the hearing, Clinton said she heard no indications that the Bush administration was looking for a way to extricate itself from Iraq. "It certainly sounded like an open-ended commitment to me,'' she told reporters.
Obama was non-confrontational as he questioned Petraeus and Crocker at the afternoon Foreign Relations Committee hearing. But he made clear he believed that the war was a "massive strategic blunder,'' and that the United States should begin a troop withdrawal. Obama asked the witnesses whether the standards for "success'' in Iraq -- political stability, no presence of al-Qaeda, and no dangerous influence from Iran -- are perhaps too high.
Those benchmarks, he said, create "the possibility our staying for 20 to 30 years.''
About Political Intelligence
Glen Johnson is Politics Editor at boston.com and lead blogger for "Political Intelligence." He moved to Massachusetts in the fourth grade, and has covered local, state, and national politics for over 25 years. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.