Congress to hear Petraeus on Iraq with eye on U.S. elections

Democrats hope this week's hearings can shift the war's course. GOP wants Clinton, Obama to acknowledge its gains.

Jason Reed/Reuters
Testimony: Army Gen. David Petraeus (l.) and Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker discussed the 'surge' with Congress in September.

The last time Gen. David Petraeus and US Ambassador Ryan Crocker appeared before a congressional panel, the focus was on the military: Could a "surge" of 30,000 US troops reduce the violence in Iraq? Now, seven months later, the calculations of an election year have intervened.

As senators and congressmen prepare this week to question the two men in charge of the US effort in Iraq, the focus will become, more overtly than ever, the US presidential and congressional elections this fall. The stakes couldn't be higher.

That's in part because all three major presidential candidates will question General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker. But it's also due to the political strategies of the two parties.

For Democrats, hearings this week set up what is likely to be their last bid to change course in Iraq – and to ensure that the next president doesn't inherit a debacle. "We believe there is still time for you to recognize that a change in strategy is necessary to repair the grave damage done to our nation's security," said senior Democrats in a letter last week to President Bush.

Republicans want to force Democrats, especially the two senators on the front lines of the presidential race, to concede progress on the ground in Iraq – an admission that they say will make it harder to make the case for an early withdrawal.

Both sides are looking to Petraeus and Crocker for help in making their case.

Instead of calling for a timetable for withdrawal, senior Democrats last week rallied around a four-point plan that shifts US presence from a combat role to a posture of "strategic overwatch," a concept they credit to Petraeus.

The aim is to create new incentives for the Iraqis to reach a political settlement, so that the US can substantially reduce troop levels.

Then, Washington can redirect resources to other security challenges, such as restoring the highest state of readiness in the Army and Marine Corps; shifting resources to Afghanistan and Pakistan, where Al Qaeda is reportedly back to prewar strength; and rebuilding regional diplomacy.

"We should not allow this debate to come down to who is controlling what block in what city in Iraq," says Sen. James Webb (D) of Virginia, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, which leads off the week's hearings on Tuesday.

Democrats need to broaden the debate to the regional impact of US strategy in Iraq and its impact on the fight against international terrorism, he says. "Iraq is not an island in the middle of an ocean."

Other panel hearings this week: the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, also on Tuesday; followed by the House Armed Services and Foreign Affairs panels on Wednesday.

On the House side, Rep. Joe Sestak (D) of Pennsylvania says that there's a danger that this week's hearings could appear to set up Petraeus as the voice of the Bush administration on national-security strategy.

"Allowing one man to set the whole tone by default is to place a single person in the role of defining national-security policy and the public's view of it," says Representative Sestak, a former Navy admiral and defense adviser in the Clinton administration. "What we really need is a comprehensive assessment of our overall security."

In a bid to encourage that broader view, Democrats are highlighting the testimony of other high-ranking military officials on the strains that the war in Iraq has put on US capacity to respond to other security threats, such as in Afghanistan.

In a press briefing last week, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Rep. Ike Skelton, who chairs the House Armed Services Committee, previewed the case Democrats will make this week on the need to change national-security priorities.

Citing recent testimony by Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, they said that the most likely near-term attack on the US is likely to come from Al Qaeda "safe havens" in Afghanistan and Pakistan and that the US force level in Iraq "doesn't allow us to fill the need that we have in Afghanistan."

At a time of economic distress for many American families, Democrats also say that the cost of the war – set to surpass $3 trillion, according to a recent estimate by former Clinton economic adviser Joseph Stiglitz – could surpass the crisis in the housing markets as a threat to the economy.

Meanwhile, Republicans aim to keep the questions focused as much as possible on progress on the ground in Iraq. The next steps should be determined by the recommendations of top military commanders in the field, not politicians on the campaign trail, they say.

"What's different today is that we're clearly on a new path toward a successful conclusion of the war in Iraq," says Sen. Lamar Alexander (R) of Tennessee, who chairs the Senate Republican Conference, which is charged with message and outreach. "We should listen to General Petraeus, because he's changed the direction of the war."

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