Presidential Hopefuls Among Senators Grilling Petraeus

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Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker faced two Senate panels that included no fewer than five senators vying to become U.S. president. Yet they were spared much of the typical campaign trail rhetoric about the war.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

When two top American officials testified about Iraq yesterday, they were talking to a couple of Senate committees, but they were also talking to five senators who are vying to be the next president. Yet General David Petraeus and Ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, were spared much of the typical campaign rhetoric.

Here's NPR's David Welna.

DAVID WELNA: Four Democratic senators and one Republican running for president all politely grilled General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker yesterday. Democrat Joe Biden got the most time to do so as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. In an exchange with Petraeus, Biden pointed out that the political reconciliation in Iraq, the troop surge was suppose to facilitate, had failed to materialized.

Senator JOE BIDEN (Democrat, Delaware; Presidential Candidate): If, in fact, the circumstances on the ground are exactly what they are today in March of next year, will you recommend the continuation of somewhere between 130 and 160,000 American troops being shot at, killed and maimed every day there?

General DAVID PETRAEUS (U.S. Commander in Iraq): Mr. Chairman, I - it's a pretty big hypothetical.

Sen. BIDEN: Well, I don't think it's hypothetical if they're the same.

Gen. PETRAEUS: I would be very hard press to recommend that at that point in time.

Sen. BIDEN: I would pray you'd be wise enough not to recommend it.

WELNA: Sitting on the same panel is fellow Democratic candidate Barack Obama. He used six of his seven allotted minutes, sounding as if he were trying to get the witnesses to agree that it's President Bush who's misleading the nation about progress in Iraq.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois; Presidential Candidate): We have the president in Australia suggesting somehow that we are, as was stated before, kicking A-S-S. How can we have a president making that assessment? And it makes it very difficult then for those of us who would like to join with you in a bipartisan way to figure out how to best move forward to extricate this from the day-to-day politics that infects Washington.

WELNA: Obama then bemoaned to have bemused Chairman Biden how much time he'd used up.

Sen. OBAMA: That, of course, now leaves me very little time to ask questions, and that's unfortunate.

Sen. BIDEN: That's true, sir.

WELNA: Christopher Dodd, the third Democratic presidential contender on the panel waited until he'd left the hearing room to advocate a deadline for bringing troops home.

Senator CHRISTOPHER DODD (Democrat, Connecticut; Presidential Candidate): The one issue that may bring about reconciliation that hasn't happened yet, is the clarity that our American troops are leaving Iraq. And I'm not going to be supporting any more funding for Iraq in the absence of some date certains, when you begin to withdrawal when we completed.

WELNA: The sole Republican presidential contender quizzing Petraeus and Crocker came later on the Senate Armed Services Committee. But while John McCain has argued for years that more troops are needed in Iraq, he said nothing to Petraeus about the general's decision to pull back the 30,000 troops sent for the surge by next July. Instead, McCain took aim at unnamed colleagues.

Senator JOHN McCAIN (Republican, Arizona; Presidential Candidate): Some senators would like to withdraw our troops from Iraq so we can get back to fighting what they believe to be the real war on terror, which is taking place somewhere else. This too, is inaccurate. Iraq has become the central front in the global war on terror, and failure there would turn Iraq into a terror sanctuary in the heart of the Middle East - a host for jihadists planning attacks on America.

WELNA: Presidential rival and Democrat Hillary Clinton, who's on the same panel, pointedly noted later that Osama bin Laden's still at large. Like Obama, Clinton sought to put the onus, not on Petraeus and Crocker, but on President Bush.

Senator HILLARY CLINTON (Democrat, New York): You have been made the de facto's spokesmen for what many of us believe to be a failed policy. Despite what I view as your rather extraordinary efforts in your testimony both yesterday and today, I think that the reports that you provide to us really require the willing suspension of disbelief.

WELNA: That careful weaving of praise and skepticism seemed a common theme yesterday for five senators who all want to be the next commander-in-chief.

David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

INSKEEP: And our coverage continues at npr.org where you can find audio highlights, analysis and a look at what's at stake in the Iraq debate for key senators.

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White House Race Looms over Questions on Iraq

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Sen. John McCain makes his opening statement on Tuesday. i

Sen. John McCain makes his opening statement on Tuesday. Alex Wong/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Alex Wong/Getty Images
Sen. John McCain makes his opening statement on Tuesday.

Sen. John McCain makes his opening statement on Tuesday.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

Sen. Barack Obama listens to opening remarks from General David Petraeus on Capitol Hill on Tuesday. Alex Wong/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Alex Wong/Getty Images

Four Democratic senators and one Republican running for president grilled Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker in Senate hearings on Monday, as the pair sought to explain the situation on the ground in Iraq.

As chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Democrat Joseph Biden of Delaware got the most time for questions. In an exchange with Petraeus, Biden pointed out that the political reconciliation in Iraq the troop surge was supposed to facilitate had failed to materialize:

"If in fact the circumstances on the ground are exactly what they are today in March of next year, will you recommend the continuation of somewhere between 130,000 and 160,000 American troops being shot at, killed and maimed every day there?" Biden asked.

"Mr. Chairman, I that's a pretty big hypothetical," the general responded.

"Well, I don't think it's hypothetical if they're to stay," said Biden.

"I would be very hard-pressed to recommend that at that point in time," Petraeus said.

Biden: "I would pray you'd be wise enough not to recommend it."

Sitting on the same panel was fellow Democratic candidate, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois. He used six of his seven allotted minutes sounding as if he were trying to get the witnesses to agree that it is President Bush who is misleading the nation about progress in Iraq:

"We have the president in Australia suggesting somehow that we are, as was suggested before, kicking ... a-s-s, how can that, how can we have a president making that assessment," Obama said.

Christopher Dodd, the third Democratic presidential contender on the panel, waited until he had left the hearing room to advocate a deadline for bringing troops home.

"I'm not going to be supporting any more funding for Iraq in the absence of some date ... when you begin a withdrawal and when we complete it," Dodd said.

The sole Republican presidential contender quizzing Petraeus and Crocker, Sen. John McCain argued for years that more troops were needed in Iraq. He said nothing to Petraeus about the general's decision to pull back the thirty thousand troops sent for the surge by next July. Instead, McCain took aim at unnamed colleagues.

"Some senators would like to withdraw our troops from Iraq so we can get back to fighting what they believe to be the real war on terror — which is taking place somewhere else," McCain said, referring to criticism that Iraq has been a distraction from Afghanistan.

"This too is inaccurate. Iraq has become the central front in the global war on terror, and failure there would turn Iraq into a terrorist sanctuary in the heart of the middle east ... a host for jihadists planning attacks on America," he said.

Democrat Hillary Clinton, who is a member of the same panel, pointedly noted later that Osama Bin Laden is still at large. Like Obama, Clinton sought to put the onus not on Petraeus and Crocker, but on President Bush.

"You have been made the de facto spokesmen for what many of us believe to be a failed policy. Despite what I view as your rather extraordinary efforts in your testimony both yesterday and today, I think that the reports that you provide to us really require the willing suspension of disbelief," Clinton said.

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