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Campaigns, both political and military

Times Staff Writer

The top commander of U.S. forces in Iraq traveled to Capitol Hill on Tuesday for a rare opportunity: He testified before the nation’s next commander in chief.

What wasn’t clear was which one of the three presidential candidates sitting in two packed hearing rooms would be occupying the Oval Office next year.

Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Barack Obama (D-Ill.) all took a detour from the campaign trail to hear status reports on the Iraq war from Army Gen. David H. Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker.

The hearings -- held seven months after Petraeus and Crocker last testified before Congress on the war -- turned the spotlight back on the candidates’ wide differences on the most important security issue that will face the next president.

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At the morning hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee, McCain argued that it was “reckless and irresponsible” to call, as Obama and Clinton have, for the withdrawal of U.S. troops. But he did not remain in the committee room long enough to hear Clinton’s response.

She said it would be more irresponsible to stick with the current strategy.

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

Obama, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, attended the afternoon hearing before that panel.

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The back-to-back hearings gave the candidates an opportunity to showcase their competing claims to being best-equipped to be commander in chief. But the questioning -- mostly low-key and respectful -- was lacking in fireworks.

At the hearings in September, it was the two Democratic presidential contenders who came under fire. Obama was criticized for giving a speech so long that he left hardly any time to question Petraeus, and Clinton was derided by Republicans for telling Petraeus that it would take a “willing suspension of disbelief” to accept the claim that the troop “surge” was working.

Also different this time was the political context of the hearings. Seven months ago, Clinton was the front-runner in the Democratic presidential contest and Obama was a long shot, while McCain’s campaign to lead the GOP ticket was broke and in shambles. Now Clinton is trailing Obama in delegates, and McCain has virtually sewn up his party’s nomination.

The presence of two presidential candidates created a frenzy Tuesday morning in the usually staid Armed Services Committee hearing room. Clinton and McCain arrived at the standing-room-only event to a cacophony of clicking camera shutters.

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Antiwar demonstrators were scattered through the visitors section, many robed in black with red paint on their palms to simulate blood. Police kept a watchful eye on the crowd and quelled outbursts. One protester was carried out when he refused to stop shouting “Bring them home.”

McCain’s opening statement was also interrupted by protests, but he noted that he was a veteran at dealing with hecklers. “I have had this experience previously,” he said.

The Arizona senator enjoyed a tactical advantage: As the panel’s senior Republican, he was the second senator to ask questions. He used his time to underscore the view that is the risky pillar of his presidential campaign: Progress is being made in Iraq thanks to the troop surge, and U.S. withdrawal will cause irreparable damage to Iraq and to American interests.

“To promise a withdrawal of our forces, regardless of the consequences, would constitute a failure of political and moral leadership,” he said.

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But while Clinton has dubbed the war the Bush-McCain policy, McCain tried to show he was not simply an uncritical cheerleader for the administration’s strategy. He challenged Petraeus about rocket fire in the Green Zone, the heavily protected U.S.-controlled area in Baghdad, and about problems with the Iraqi military, including widespread desertions in recent fighting in Basra.

“What is the lesson we should draw from the fact that 1,000 Iraqi forces deserted or underperformed in Basra?” McCain asked.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a close McCain ally, took another dig at Democrats when he asked Petraeus about the effect of withdrawing one or two brigades a month -- a timeline both Obama and Clinton have suggested. Petraeus did not quite take the bait.

“It depends on the conditions at the time,” he demurred. “If the conditions were good -- quite good -- then that might be doable.”

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As one of the most junior members of the panel, Clinton had to sit through three hours of testimony and questioning before she got a turn to speak. In the meantime, she listened attentively, chewing gum pensively, occasionally talking to one of her campaign’s strongest supporters, Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), who sat next to her.

When her turn finally arrived, she called once again for accelerated withdrawals and warned that the demands on the military in Iraq were hampering the U.S. mission in Afghanistan.

“Our current strategy in Iraq has very real costs,” she said. After her 15 minutes were up, she ducked out -- as did hordes of reporters and photographers.

Obama also had to wait hours to speak at the Foreign Relations Committee hearing, which was well-attended by some of the Senate’s most verbose members. He did not repeat his September mistake of launching into a long speech, instead starting his remarks with a series of pointed questions about defining the benchmarks of success in Iraq. He warned that if the definition of success was set too high, the U.S. would remain in Iraq for 20 or 30 years.

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Crocker responded vaguely: “This is hard and this is complex.”

Obama had fans among those in attendance. When Sen. George V. Voinovich (R-Ohio) referred to “someone sitting across the table who may be the next president of the United States,” applause broke out in the audience.

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janet.hook@latimes.com

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