Obama's Star Turn At The Petraeus Hearing

Obama, sitting high on the dais at the hearings, pointed up the confusion surrounding how to determine the criteria for success in Iraq. "No one's calling for a precipitous withdrawal," he said.
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After spending the morning with the Senate Armed Forces Committee, Gen. Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker have moved over to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

(Reminding me of Saint Lawrence, who, when being grilled on a stake, said, "Turn me over, I'm done on this side.")

The Foreign Relations Committee -- which includes Barack Obama -- is led by Democrat Joe Biden and has as its ranking member Republican Richard Lugar. Despite the bi-partisan make-up of the committee, however, a consensus is emerging among the senators this afternoon. Bottom line: we need to be thinking about getting out of Iraq.

Questions turn on certain themes: a) Why are we in Iraq and not in Afghanistan/Pakistan, where Al Qaeda is much more of a threat? b) Is our strategy working? Isn't there another way? c) How will we know when it's either bad enough or good enough to leave?

Crocker and Petraeus strike a mainly candid tone, if occasionally defensive and circumspect (Petreaus more often the former; Crocker more often the latter). The word "fragile" keeps coming up. Our gains in Iraq are fragile. The situation in Iraq is fragile. "Nothing in Iraq is easy," says Petraeus. One has the sense that Iraq is thin and as brittle as kindling.

Barack Obama, the undisputed main celebrity at the event, has been sitting a bit high on the dais given his junior status on the committee. He was also allowed to speak out of turn -- early -- owing to a scheduling issue. ("Yeah, getting on the evening news," said the journo next to me.)

Obama managed at once to bat clean up by summarizing his colleagues' arguments; to play star lawyer by rhetorically leading around the general and ambassador like they were witnesses at a trial; to be collegial by thanking Biden for his "indulgence" of an extra minute and by referencing fellow member Senator Barbara Boxer's comments; and to underline his status as front-running presidential candidate by offering concluding remarks straight to the camera, as if the senate were simply another town hall in which to deliver a stump speech.

Oh, and he also played the glamor girl. At one point he flashed a mega-watt grin, and so many cameras in the room went off at once that the shutters sounded like someone shuffling playing cards.

Onto the substance.

Obama, who favors withdrawing troops from Iraq, pointed up the confusion surrounding how exactly to determine the criteria for success in Iraq. He outlined his stance in four points:

1) We all have the greatest interest in seeing a successful resolution to Iraq.
2) He continues to believe the original decision to go into Iraq was a massive strategic blunder.
3) The surge has reduced violence and provided breathing room, but the opportunity to breathe has not been taken.
4) Our resources are finite. When resources are stretched, we have to focus tightly and modestly, and Al Qada is feeling a lot more secure when we're focused in Iraq and not Afghanistan.

"No one's calling for a precipitous withdrawal," he said, presumably for the benefit of critics who say that's exactly what he wants to do. But, he believes we are more likely to resolve the situation in Iraq if we apply increased pressure in a measured way, which includes a timetable for withdrawal, and create a "diplomatic surge" that includes talking to Iran.

In what was a useful point for a rather stalled discussion, but perhaps a phrasing that is going to cost him politically, Obama argued that our standards of success were perhaps so high as to be impossible without staying another 20 or 30 years.

In short, if US troops can leave, and Iraq maintains the current messy status quo but is not a threat to its neighbors or a base for Iranian expansion, would that be okay?

The question remained unanswered.

His time up (indeed stretched well beyond the seven-minute limit), the senator from Illinois exchanged a friendly word with the senator next to him, stood up, and disappeared. A third of the spectators in the room went with him.

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