Hillary Clinton may be the leading contender for the Democratic presidential nomination, but she's still a relatively junior senator when it comes to a Senate Foreign Relations Committee that includes octogenarians John Warner and Robert Byrd. So here we are at nearly 6:30 p.m. on a day of hearings that began at 9:30 a.m., and the woman who would be president has just now had her eight minutes with Gen. David Petraeus and ambassador Ryan Crocker.
Presidential candidates Joe Biden, Chris Dodd, John McCain and Barack Obama all got their shots much earlier in the day, and each approached the task with enthusiasm. Clinton, whose morning started with a rainy 9/11 observance in New York, seemed exhausted as she put herself through the paces. Praise the troops for their sacrifices? Check. Thank Petraeus and Crocker for their hard work? Check. Note -- as Obama did earlier today -- that Petraeus and Crocker are stuck implementing a lousy policy? Check.
But Clinton went further than Obama did, hitting Petraeus and Crocker for being not just "de facto spokesmen for a failed policy" but enablers of it. "Despite the extraordinary efforts in your testimony yesterday and today," she told them, "the reports that you provide to us really require the willing suspension of disbelief. In any of the metrics that have been referenced in your many hours of testimony, any fair reading of the advantages and disadvantages accruing post-'surge,' in my view, end up on the down side."
The right will surely accuse Clinton of flip-flopping. Didn't she say just a few weeks ago that the "surge" was "working"? No, she didn't, actually. What she said was that, "in some areas, particularly in Al Anbar province," the military's change in tactics was "working."
Along the way toward challenging Petraeus' credibility today, Clinton backed away from that assessment a bit. Noting that Petraeus testified Monday that no one could have predicted back in January the progress he's seeing in the Anbar province today, Clinton asked the general if it wasn't true that he, himself, noted the beginnings of such progress during his confirmation hearings in January. Translation: Maybe the "surge" shouldn't get credit for the Anbar progress after all.
Outside of Anbar, Clinton made it clear that she doesn't think there's much progress to report at all. Civilian casualties are up when compared on a month-to-month basis to last year's numbers. So are U.S. military casualties. The process of political reconciliation in Iraq -- the thing the "surge" was supposed to make possible -- "is now being described as relying on 'bottom-up' efforts, which are anecdotal, which have very little hard evidence [to support their effectiveness]." Meanwhile, Osama bin Laden is back on television, "neither captured nor killed" but "essentially taunting us." "The Taliban and al Qaida are resurging in Afghanistan, and their network is, if not tightly organized, at least a loose confederacy that has grave consequences for us."
Clinton said she gives Petraeus and Crocker "tremendous credit for presenting as positive a view" as possible of a "rather grim reality." But she said that the two men were "dealt a very hard hand," and that she thinks it's "unlikely to improve."