Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Enough About Iraq -- Let's Talk About Me

Dana Milbank

Presidential politics are never far from the congressional debate on Iraq. As Gen. David Petraeus testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee yesterday, the two merged into a seamless whole.

Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), a presidential contender, took his seat on the dais in the Hart Senate Office Building, popped a piece of Nicorette gum into his mouth, opened a green folder and began reading a memo, partially visible to reporters behind him. It said:

To: Barack

From: Ben; Denis

Date: September 11, 2007

Re: Iraq Speech -- Differences

As you get ready for press around your speech on Iraq, we wanted to make sure you have on one piece of paper the principle [sic] differences between your speech on Iraq and the most comprehensive on Iraq given by Senator Clinton.

It further reminded Obama that "you argue that by withdrawing 1-2 combat brigades a month you can get all those units out by the end of next year (2008)."

Obama, as it happens, is to deliver a major campaign speech about Iraq in Iowa today -- so it isn't entirely surprising that he would be preparing some political barbs for the Democratic front-runner, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.). Still, Obama's juxtaposition -- contemplating the nakedly political as he prepared to question the top U.S. general in Iraq and the U.S. ambassador to Iraq -- was stark.

Not that Obama was the only senator with one foot on the campaign trail yesterday as Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker spoke to the Foreign Relations and Armed Services committees. With five current presidential candidates on the two panels, not to mention four past presidential candidates and three others who have recently contemplated presidential runs, it could hardly be otherwise.

Clinton, herself a member of the Armed Services Committee, at first entered the hearing room largely unnoticed; she then left and reentered moments later as part of Petraeus's entourage -- basking in the clicks of hundreds of camera shutters.

Foreign Relations Chairman Joe Biden (Del.), an also-ran in the presidential race, displayed his disdain for the more popular Obama by conspicuously reading a newspaper while the Illinois senator questioned the witnesses. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) used his place as top Republican on the Armed Services Committee to direct a zinger at Obama. Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), a senior member of the Foreign Relations Committee but a presidential dark horse, wasted no time getting out a press release that took a shot at both Obama and Clinton.

The senators had reason for their flagging interest in Petraeus. The House stole the Senate's thunder by having Petraeus testify Monday. As if to rub it in, Petraeus greeted both Senate committees yesterday by re-reading, virtually word for word, the same testimony he read to the House.

But this dearth of new developments left senators free to do what they do best: talk about themselves. Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), who on Monday abandoned his flirtation with a presidential run, used all seven of his allotted minutes making a speech. So did Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.). So did Obama.

Sen. John Sununu (R-N.H.) rebuked his colleagues for their wordiness. "I will take my question-and-answer time to ask questions, if it's all right with the committee," he said primly. He then consumed a minute and 10 seconds to ask his first question.

Some senators sounded as if they were forming a travel club. Boxer displayed a blown-up photograph of her meeting in Iraq with the general. "I will never forget it," she said. "We were sitting in an armored vehicle."

"I was in Ramadi, about nine days ago," boasted Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.). "When I was in Iraq and had a sit-down with General Odierno," offered Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska).

Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), a frequent Iraq traveler, played tourism promoter: "I would suggest that both Senator Kennedy and Senator Byrd go over there."

As usual, nobody could outdo Biden. "The helicopter was grounded because of a windstorm," began his dramatic account.

The senators, more than their counterparts in the House on Monday, had the confidence to challenge the popular general. Some challenges came from the usual suspects, such as Boxer, who requested that Petraeus "take off your rosy glasses." But tough words came from Republicans, too. Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) argued that "it is not enough for the administration to counsel patience until the next milestone or the next report." Hagel scolded the general: "Where is this going? Come on."

Sen. John Warner (R-Va.) produced the most striking admission of the day when, taking off his reading glasses and staring down gravely, he asked: "If we continue what you have laid before the Congress here as a strategy, do you feel that that is making America safer?"

"Sir, I believe that this is indeed the best course of action to achieve our objectives in Iraq," Petraeus replied.

"Does that make America safer?" Warner pressed.

"Sir," the general said. "I don't know." But Warner got nothing near the attention of the presidential candidates. When Obama entered the hearing room, midway through Lugar's opening statement, the cameras turned immediately to him . He posed thoughtfully, stroking his temple with his index finger and his chin with his pen. After a while, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) grabbed an empty seat next to Obama and struck up a conversation -- scoring a mother lode of photographs.

In his seven minutes of questioning time, Obama seemed to be practicing for today's speech. "This continues to be a disastrous foreign policy mistake," he said. "And we are now confronted with the question: How do we clean up the mess and make the best out of a situation in which there are no good options?"

He then ridiculed President Bush for "suggesting somehow that we are . . . kicking A-S-S. How can we have a president making that assessment?"

Stump speech over, Obama observed that he was left with "very little time to ask questions."

"That's true, Senator," Biden agreed without sympathy.

Obama got off only one question -- about future "benchmarks" -- and it turned out to be a repeat.

"Senator," Crocker replied. "I described [them] for Senator Sununu a little bit ago."

This was news to Obama. "Can you repeat those?" he asked.

Must have been busy reading the campaign memorandum.

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