New York Senator and presidential aspirant Hillary Clinton closed out the first session of questioning with Generals David Petraeus and Ray Odierno. Focusing on how Petraeus' "broader areas of responsibility" will change from a focus on Iraq to the overall purview of the entire CENTCOM theater, she scored a critical point on the administration's overall mission drift that saw the Iraq War siphon off the critical resources needed to fight al Qaida. Clinton led off with a query on the Afghanistan mission, and whether it was being given the right amount of manpower and resources, smartly pointing out that as a Senator from New York, the drain from Afghanistan was "deeply troubling" in the way it had allowed the perpetrators of the September 11th attacks to escape and flourish.
But the $64,000 question was the one she put to Odierno, asking him to give an assessment on how long withdrawal from Iraq would take, should a new President order it. Back when this round of promotions was announced, one of the things I stipulated was that "if there is a clear litmus test for Congressional approval of this promotion, it is this: During his testimony, Petraeus refused to stipulate whether or not he'd be willing to advise a new President on withdrawal from Iraq." Via Spencer Ackerman, who's been a key voice for putting Petraeus on blast over this, here's why:
Asked by Ellen Tauscher, a California Democrat, what he would say to a new president who asked for a withdrawal plan within 60 days of taking office, Petraeus dodged like hell. Wow.
"I would back up," he said, "and ask what's the mission, what's the desired endstate. And then you advise on resources..." Tauscher said the goal would be to keep the security gains of the surge, fix the readiness problems of the military and cut U.S. costs in Iraq.
"My response would be dialogue on what the risks would be. And, again, this is about risk." Petraeus sounded a lot like he was saying he would not be willing to advise a President Obama or a President Clinton on withdrawal -- something that, unless he was willing to resign, is very Constitutionally dubious.
Seemingly aware of that, he added quickly, "Let me state up front that I absolutely support the idea of civilian control of the military. We do not work for ourselves. We take orders, and we follow them. What we want to do is have dialogue about the mission -- what the endstate is -- and then provide an assessment of a commander on the ground [as to] what the resources provided are ... [I have] sworn an oath to the Constitution and the concept of civilian control."
This is huge. Notice Petraeus still didn't say he would do what his commander-in-chief asked: submit a plan for withdrawal if ordered, or resign if he was unable to.
It's obviously a key matter for Clinton, who is, after all, vying to be the President that submits such a plan for withdrawal, and she didn't hedge:
CLINTON: I know that we may not agree about what the principal emphasis should be with respect to our efforts on al Qaida because certainly the ongoing threat to the United States on our soil emanates from outside of Iraq, in my opinion, and I think we've got to raise the visibility of our efforts with respect to al Qaida's in Afghanistan and Pakistan, particularly along the border. Its efforts to set up subsidiaries in Somalia, Yemen, and elsewhere. Because from the perspective of a Senator from New York, now six and a half years from 9/11, it is deeply troubling that we have not captured or killed or essentially decapitated the capacity of al Qaeda under the leadership it had in 2001, which is still the leadership it has today. I just wanted to ask one question, if I could, of General Odierno...how many troops, General Odierno, do you plan on having in Iraq for the provincial elections in October? Will you request a temporary increase in troops?
ODIERNO: Senator, I will never say never, but my assessment now is with the progress we're making and the progress we're seeing in the Iraqi security forces, and what I'm seeing as the security environment on the ground, currently I do not believe we will need an increase. I think we'll be able to do it with the forces that are on the ground there now, or what we'll get to in July. I feel fairly comfortable with that. Now obviously, the environment and the enemy has a vote, but currently I believe we should not need an increase.
CLINTON: And finally, General, if there were a decision by the President, in your professional estimation, how long would a responsible withdrawal from Iraq take?
ODIERNO: Seantor, it's a very difficult question, and the reason is, is because there are a number of assumptions and factors that I'd have to understand first...based on how do we want to leave the environmental issues in Iraq, what would be the final endstate...what is the effect on the ground, what is the security issue on the ground. So I don't think I can give you an answer now, but, certainly, at the time, if asked...and we do planning, we do a significant amount of planning to make sure that an appropriate answer was given, and we would lay out a timeline.
In the continual fight to get a grasp on what the end-game scenario for Iraq entails, just getting one of Bush's generals to evince a willingness to participate in the mapping-out of such a scenario is a significant win. Taken as a whole, Clinton's questioning has seriously advanced the cause of Iraq withdrawal and redeployment.