WASHINGTON — Presidential rivals John McCain, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton used Tuesday's Senate hearings on the Iraq war to preview the starkly different ways that a Republican or Democratic successor to President Bush might manage the conflict.
The differences were obvious as each got about six minutes to quiz Army Gen. David Petraeus, the U.S. military commander in Iraq, and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker on the war's progress. Petraeus and Crocker appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee in the morning and then testified before the foreign relations panel in the afternoon.
McCain, R-Ariz., the armed service committee's top Republican, attempted to distance himself from the Bush administration while saying that the war remains a noble cause.
Clinton, D-N.Y., a junior member of the same panel, opened her questioning by justifying her desire to withdraw troops, while Obama, a foreign relations panel member, added his support for a pullout but also asked pointed questions about the roles of Iran and al Qaida.
They left little doubt where they stood.
Obama branded the war a "massive strategic blunder" and called al Qaida and Iran's increasing influence in the region "a direct result" of the U.S. involvement in Iraq.
"We're not going to eliminate all influence of Iran in Iraq," Obama said. "Define what's a legitimate or fair set of circumstances ...that would make us feel comfortable in drawing down our troops."
Crocker didn't give a direct answer, saying that while the U.S. has "no problem" with a good Iran-Iraq relationship, it's concerned about the influence of Iran-backed extremists.
Suppose, asked Obama, if Iraq could have its current status quo without U.S. troops. After all, the Illinois senator said, "our resources are finite. ... We have to define our goals tightly and modestly."
Crocker offered a somber answer. "I can't imagine," he said, "the current status quo being sustainable with that kind of precipitous drawdown."
Obama countered that he wasn't suggesting that all troops be withdrawn right away, but "I'm trying to get to an endpoint."
Crocker suggested that won't be easy. "This is hard and this is complicated," he said.
Clinton was somewhat more circumspect, starting off her questioning period with a lengthy statement reiterating where she stood.
"I just want to respond to some of the 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," Clinton said.
"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, at such tremendous cost to our national security and to the men and women who wear the uniform of the United States military."
Clinton chafed at testimony that the administration doesn't intend to seek congressional approval before working out an agreement with the Iraqi government to continue operations after July.
She also pressed Petraeus to say what conditions would have to exist for him to tell the president to end the war. "The conditions are unclear," she said.
It was clear that Obama and Clinton have a dramatically different view of the war than does McCain. He said that withdrawing American forces before "adequate" security is in place could lead to genocide, empower Iran and "almost certainly require us to return to Iraq or draw us into a wider and far, far costlier war."
Since the middle of last year, McCain said, he's seen an "improved security environment" that has "led to a new opportunity, one in which average Iraqis can, in the future, approach a more normal political and economic life."
However, he criticized the Bush administration's handling of Iraq, warning that "four years of mismanaged war had brought us almost to the point of no return" and "sectarian violence in Iraq was spiraling out of control, life had become a struggle for survival and a full-scale civil war was almost unavoidable."
Clinton, like McCain, didn't take a particularly emotional or dramatic stance. Instead, she pointed out that Petraeus recently had said that progress toward Iraqi reconciliation wasn't proceeding as he'd hoped.
Petraeus told her "there's not an equation" or mathematical formula for when the war should end and that ultimately "it really involves commanders sitting down . . . and assessing where it is you can reduce your forces."
"There has indeed been progress in the political arena ... and a variety of other areas," he said.
McCain said that despite shortcomings, "today it is possible to talk with real hope and optimism about the future of Iraq and the outcome of our efforts there."
Most Democrats disagreed, and committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., grilled Petraeus about the recent U.S.-backed Iraqi government offensive against renegade Shiite Muslim militias in the southern city of Basra.
When McCain got another turn, he also asked Petraeus about the Basra operation, which the general said was somewhat of a surprise to Americans. The Iraqi military, however, relies heavily on the U.S. for advice, logistics and air support, and The New York Times reported the planned operation on March 13 — 11 days before it began — in a story headlined "Iraqi Troops May Move to Reclaim Basra's Port."
When McCain asked about the lessons to be drawn, Petraeus said the Iraqi forces were new and subject to local pressure. Asked whether he was disappointed with the operation, Petraeus replied: "It's not over yet, senator."