- The Washington Times - Monday, April 14, 2008

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Sen. John McCain had one goal in mind when his turn came to question Gen. David Petraeus about the Iraq war: to show Sen. Barack Obama didn’t understand the dire threat al Qaeda posed to that country’s survival.

After some preliminary questions before the Senate Armed Services Committee last week about the performance of Iraqi forces and the threat to the Green Zone by rocket attacks from Sadr City, Mr. McCain began a series of inquiries about al Qaeda’s role in the war.

“There are numerous threats to security in Iraq and the future of Iraq. Do you still view al Qaeda in Iraq as a major threat?” the Arizona Republican asked the war commander.

“It is still a major threat, though it is certainly not as major a threat as it was, say, 15 months ago,” Gen. Petraeus replied.

“Certainly not an obscure sect of the Shi’ites,” Mr. McCain said, then quickly correcting himself about the Sunni-dominated terrorist force, “or Sunnis or anybody else?”

“No,” Gen. Petraeus answered.

“Al Qaeda continues to try to assert themselves in Mosul, is that correct? Mr. McCain asked. “It is, senator,” the four-star general responded, adding, “Mosul and Nineveh Province are areas that al Qaeda is very much trying to hold on to.”

Attempting to further nail down the point, Mr. McCain asked again, “They continue to be a significant threat?”

“They do. Yes, sir,” Gen. Petraeus responded.

Though he never mentioned the Democratic presidential front-runner by name, Mr. McCain wanted to dismantle one of Mr. Obama’s chief contentions regarding the war: that there is no serious al Qaeda threat in Iraq in terms of a military infrastructure with command centers, bases, etc., and it is time to begin a full withdrawal of all combat forces there.

Mr. Obama has from the beginning maintained that al Qaeda was not in Iraq before the U.S. invasion and only entered the country after Saddam Hussein’s regime was toppled. The Illinois senator’s argument essentially maintains that the U.S. presence in Iraq is the sole cause of the presence of al Qaeda in the country.

You would be unable to find any declaration in any of his campaign speeches that al Qaeda, the radical Islamic terrorist force that killed nearly 3,000 people in America on Sept. 11, 2001, and many other people in attacks around the world, poses a dire threat to Iraq’s fledgling democracy.

Indeed, if you visit Mr. Obama’s campaign Web site and look up his position paper on U.S. withdrawal from Iraq and scroll down to the very bottom of it, you will see a rather extraordinary statement. He asserts that if, after pulling most of our troops out of Iraq, al Qaeda were to establish bases there, he would go back in with strategic forces to eliminate them.

So Mr. McCain cannily hammered conclusively home the reality that al Qaeda is in Iraq, it has safe houses, it has facilities, ammo dumps and, well, bases of operation. That’s why they call themselves “al Qaeda in Iraq.” And the Arizona senator, with Gen. Petraeus’ cooperation, effectively did that last week. So much so that Mr. Obama was forced to deal with it later in the day when the general went before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee where the young senator sought to rebut Mr. McCain’s assertions.

Mr. Obama had to concede that “they [al Qaeda] continue to have a presence there now,” but asked Gen. Petraeus, “If one of our criteria for success is ensuring that al Qaeda does not have a base of operations in Iraq” how do we measure that? Gen. Petraeus reiterated that we had to “keep chipping away at them, chipping away at their leadership, chipping away at their resources… over time.”

But Mr. Obama, seeking some mathematical standard by which there would be an end game, pressed further: “Our goal is not to hunt down and eliminate every single trace, but rather to create a manageable situation where they’re not posing a threat to Iraq … Is that accurate?”

“That is exactly right,” Gen. Petraeus said.

But that begs the question of when do we reach that point. That is the unknown Gen. Petraeus must evaluate later this summer, when he will pause in the drawdown to see how things are going.

But Mr. Obama has already reached his command decision when he says he will begin a troop pullout if sworn in as president next January, presumably whether Iraq is crawling with al Qaeda forces or not.

Mr. McCain thinks this posture the height of folly. He repeated his goal of “an Iraq that no longer needs American troops” and his belief “we can achieve that goal, perhaps sooner than many imagine.”

But he also believes that “to promise a withdrawal of our forces, regardless of the consequences, would constitute a failure of political and moral leadership.”

The cross-committee debate between the two rivals formed a study in sharp contrasts: On the one hand, Mr. McCain, focused on eliminating al Qaeda as a serious threat in Iraq; on the other, Mr. Obama, acknowledging al Qaeda’s presence as a force to be reckoned with, but willing to abandon the fight in any event.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.


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