Editorial Column: Petraeus, Crocker, McCain, Clinton, Obama and…

The Nation

April 8, 2008 – Sure, Arizona Senator John McCain’s campaign may still be selling him as some kind of “maverick” or “independent thinker” — and most of the media may still be buying that ridiculous line.

But when it comes to the fundamental foreign policy issue of the 2008 race – whether to continue the war in Iraq, and at what cost – McCain’s a yes man.

When Gen. David Petraeus, the U.S. general in charge of spinning the Iraq quagmire as something other than a quagmire, and Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker, the U.S. diplomat charged with similar responsibilities, appeared before Congress, McCain greeted them the on-bended-knee position he has adopted since he decided that he would rather be the Republican nominee for president than a serious member of the U.S Congress.

Declaring with as straight a face as he could muster success in Iraq was “within reach,” McCain explained to Petraeus and Crocker that they would get no advice or counsel from this senator.

“Our goal — my goal — is an Iraq that no longer needs American troops, and I believe we can achieve that goal, perhaps sooner than many imagine,” McCain told his task masters. “But I also believe that the promise of withdrawal of our forces regardless of the consequences would constitute a failure of political and moral leadership.”

Apparently confusing “moral leadership” with the denial of reality, McCain declared against all evidence that, “Success, the establishment of peaceful, democratic state, the defeat of terrorism — this success is within reach. Congress must not choose to lose in Iraq. We must choose to succeed.”

To describe McCain’s comments at the Petraeus-Crocker hearing as “meaningless” would be an insult to meaninglessness. He added nothing to the discussion except cheerleading, and he sent the general and the ambassador back to Iraq without the benefit of the experience and insights of a member of Congress whose background could have been of value.

McCain’s decision to go AWOL was as embarrassing as it was disappointing.

New York Senator Hillary Clinton and Illinois Senator Barack Obama both made more of an effort to live up to their responsibilities as senators.

As someone who voted with McCain to get into the mess that is Iraq, Clinton acknowledged reality when she told Petraeus and Crocker that it was “time to begin an orderly process of withdrawing our troops” from Iraq.

Clinton was still a little soft when she said, “It might well be irresponsible to continue the policy that has not produced results that have been promised time and time again.”

But at least she was on the side of realism — even if she arrived there late in the game.

Obama, who had the foresight to oppose authorizing President Bush to go to war, was at least as sound as Clinton Tuesday.

“The most important issue is still the one that was asked in September which is how has this war made us safer and at what point do we know that there is success so we can start bringing our troops home,” the Democratic contender explained before the hearing.

“My belief is that we are not in a situation where staying another 10, 15 or 20 years is going to change the fundamentals on the ground,” explained Obama, who added that, “What we have not seen is the Iraqi government using the space that was created not only by our troops but by the standdown of the militias in places like Basra, to use that to move forward on a political agenda that could actually bring stability.”

So, as a senator, McCain failed the test Tuesday. But which Democrat offered the strongest challenge to the Petraeus-Crocker spin?

Clinton? Obama?

No, Russ Feingold.

The Democratic senator from Wisconsin, who is not running for president but probably should be, continued to take his job as a senator more seriously than any of his colleagues.

Feingold told Petraeus and Crocker: I hope you won’t take it personally when I say that I wish we were also hearing today from those who could help us look at Iraq from a broader perspective. The participation at this hearing of those charged with regional and global responsibilities would have given us the chance to discuss how the war in Iraq is undermining our national security. It might have helped us answer the most important question we face – not “are we winning or losing in Iraq?” but “are we winning or losing in the global fight against al Qaeda?”

Like many Americans, I am gravely concerned by how bogged down we are in Iraq. Our huge, open-ended military presence there is not only undermining our ability to respond to the global threat posed by al Qaeda, but it is also creating greater regional instability, serving as a disincentive for Iraqis to reach political reconciliation, straining our military, and piling up debt for future generations to repay.

I am pleased that violence in parts of the country has declined, but as the increase in violence in Mosul and recent events in Basra and now Baghdad indicate, long-term prospects for reconciliation appear to be just as shaky as they were before the surge. In fact, the drop in violence could have serious costs, as it is partly attributable to the deals we have struck with local militias, all of which could make national reconciliation that much more difficult.

We need to redeploy our troops from Iraq and I am disappointed that you are calling for a halt in troop reductions, General Petraeus, because the presence of about 140,000 troops in Iraq will exacerbate the conflict, not stabilize it, and it will certainly not contribute to our overall national security. Some have suggested that we should stay in Iraq until reconciliation occurs. They have it backwards — our departure is likely to force factions to the negotiating table in an attempt to finally create a viable power-sharing agreement.

If we redeploy, Iraq will no longer be the “‘cause celebre’ for jihadists, breeding a deep resentment of US involvement in the Muslim world,” as the Intelligence Community so clearly stated. Iran, as well as Turkey, Syria, and other regional actors, will have to decide if Iraqi instability is really in their interests once we are no longer on the hook. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we will be able to adequately address what must be our top priority – the threat posed by al Qaeda around the globe, and particularly its safe haven in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region. Nothing could be clearer than the need to refocus all our instruments of national power to combat this threat.

Redeployment does not mean abandoning Iraq. We must work for a peaceful outcome in that country. But if we continue to leave our military caught up in the sectarian divisions that consume Iraq, we will be doing so at grave risk to Iraq’s progress, the region’s stability, and our own national security.

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