Playing at CINC

Campaign-related fireworks failed to materialize yesterday during the testimony of General David Petraeus. The top U.S. military commander in Iraq testified with U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker to the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations Committees on progress and developments in Iraq.

Though all three presidential contenders sit on the committees — Sens. John McCain and Hillary Clinton on the Armed Services Committee and Sen. Barack Obama on Foreign Relations — none of the three made the hearings into the expected media event.

Nevertheless, both aspiring Democratic presidential nominees were able to get some campaign mileage out of their speeches and questions of the witnesses.

Last September Clinton’s sparring with Petraeus was much more blunt and aimed at satisfying the liberal fringe groups. At one point, she said Petraeus’s report on the progress in Iraq would require a “willing suspension of disbelief,” tantamount to calling Petraeus a liar.

This time around Clinton’s rhetoric was critical but softer (watch here). She spoke out that Petraeus’s findings “lack specificity and are vague” and that he must have “a condition based analysis.”

“What conditions would have to exist for you to recommend to the president that the current strategy is not working?” asked Clinton.

Clinton like many Democrats in the House and Senate based her questioning from intelligence taken from “527 media” sources (media outlets that are political activists more than news sources), quoting the New York Times and the Washington Post in her first round of questioning.

“Last week, the New York Times noted the stress on the mental health of our returning soldiers and marines from multiple and extended deployments,” said Clinton.

“General Petraeus, you know, I know that in this March 14 interview with the Washington Post, you stated that no one, and those are your words, no one in the United States and Iraqi governments feels there has been sufficient progress by any means in the area of national reconciliation or in the provision of basic public services,” Clinton questioned.

“First of all, Senator, if I could just comment on the Washington Post article,” answered Petraeus.

“What I said was that no one was satisfied with the progress that had been made, either Iraqi or American, but I then went on and actually ticked off a number of the different areas in which there had been progress and talked about the different laws that ambassador Crocker has rightly identified in a number of other areas in which, in fact, there’s been progress.”

Obama spoke eleventh in the seniority order of the Senate Foreign relations committee (watch here). It’s been reported that Obama was to be thirteenth but Sen. Bill Nelson had a prior engagement and let Obama take his place.

Like Sen. Clinton, Obama also avoided a fireworks display with Petraeus and Crocker. But Obama was more skilled at playing to the cameras than Clinton had been. Obama spent the first five minutes of his allotted time asking Petraeus and Crocker in a calm yet seemingly conciliatory tone to verify information that supported his “withdraw at any costs” position.

“So I want to be clear, if I’m understand, we don’t anticipate that there’s going to be some individual or group of individuals in Iraq that might have sympathies towards Al-Qaeda. Our goal is not to hunt down and eliminate every single trace but rather to create a manageable situation where they’re not posing a threat to Iraq or using it as a base to launch attacks outside Iraq, is that accurate?” asked Obama.

“That’s exactly right,” answered Petraeus.

“It’s also true to say we are not going to eliminate all influence of Iran in Iraq, correct?” questioned Obama.

Obama wrapped it up by asking — like most of the Democratic Senators did in yesterdays back to back hearings — the rhetorical question of how to define success in Iraq.

“I won’t — you don’t necessarily have to answer. Maybe it’s a rhetorical question. If we were able to have the status quo in Iraq right now without U.S. troops, would that be a sufficient definition of success? It’s obviously not perfect. There’s still violence. There’s still some traces of Al-Qaeda. Iran has influence more than we would like, but if we have the current status quo and yet our troops have been drawn down to 30,000, would we consider that a success, would that meet our criteria, or would that not be good enough and we’d have to devote even more resources to it?”

“Senator, I can’t imagine the current status quo being sustainable with that kind of precipitous drawdown,” answered Crocker.

Obama said that “that wasn’t his question” that he was making the point that if success in Iraq is measured by a non existent presence of Al-Qaeda and influence from Iran, the US could be there forever.

Crocker answered that he didn’t want to sound like a broken record but the strategy to success in Iraq is not that simply put.

After a grueling day of back to back questioning Petraeus and Crocker will report and answer to representatives on House Committees tomorrow. Keeping in the theme of the War in Iraq and presidential politics on Thursday President Bush is scheduled to make a speech about the war and his decisions on troop levels based on the report of General Petraeus. The President is expected to announce that future soldiers’ tours in Iraq will be reduced from 15 months in length to 12 months.