Three presidential candidates and two very different views of Iraq will be on full display on Tuesday as Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top American commander in Baghdad, testifies before the Senate in a marathon session of war and White House ambitions.
All three senators running for president — John McCain of Arizona, Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois — will have a chance to question Petraeus and Ryan C. Crocker, the American ambassador to Baghdad. Each of the three is determined to use the spectacle to advantage, but all face political risks as well as opportunities in the back-to-back hearings before the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations Committees.
“They’re going to be walking a tightrope over the Grand Canyon,” said Alan K. Simpson, a former Republican senator from Wyoming who was a member of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group that in 2006 recommended a change of administration strategy in Iraq. “Everyone is going to be watching this like hawks.”
Overall, Clinton and Obama, both Democrats, are likely to criticize the costs of the war and a lack of political progress. McCain, an early supporter of the troop escalation who has acknowledged that his political fortunes are directly tied to American success in Iraq, will say that the “surge” is working, and is likely to add that the Democrats are ignoring the gains.
Petraeus is expected to recommend at least a temporary halt in troop withdrawals and to speak more extensively about Iran’s influence in Iraq.
McCain, a Republican, has the logistical advantage in appearing before his two Democratic competitors. Petraeus is set to testify first to the Armed Services Committee, beginning at 9:30 a.m., and McCain, the ranking Republican member, will be the second to speak, after the committee chairman, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich.
Clinton, a more junior member of the panel, will speak later. Obama, a junior member of the Foreign Relations Committee, which is holding its hearing in the afternoon, will be the 13th on that panel to speak, perhaps after the evening news. When Petraeus last appeared before the two panels, in September, the sessions lasted for 10 hours, ending after 7:30 p.m.
McCain’s strategy was foreshadowed in a speech he gave Monday to the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Kansas City, Mo., where he praised Petraeus and by clear implication his own approach to Iraq.
“We sent to Iraq additional troops, many of them on their third or fourth tour,” McCain said in the speech, “and a great, seasoned general to lead them, with a battle plan that at long last actually addressed the challenges we faced in Iraq.” The reduction in violence, McCain said, “has opened the way for a return to something approaching normal political and economic life for the average Iraqi.”
As a result, he said, the United States is “no longer staring into the abyss of defeat.”
But politically, McCain risks looking like an eager cheerleader if he heaps too many accolades on Petraeus. The senator’s advisers say he will also question the general closely about the recent assault against Shiite militias in Basra, when more than 1,000 Iraqi soldiers and police officers refused to fight or abandoned their posts.