Donald Lambro

So 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 Petraeus' cooperation, effectively did that last week. So much so that 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 McCain's assertions.

Obama had to concede that "they (Al Qaeda) continue to have a presence there now," but asked 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? Petraeus reiterated that we had to "keep chipping away at them, chipping away at their leadership, chipping away at their resources ... over time."

But Obama, seeking out some mathematical standard by which there would be an end game, pressed further, asking, "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," Petraeus said.

But that begs the question when do we reach that point? That is the unknown Petraeus will have to evaluate later this summer, when he will pause in the drawdown to see how things are going. Obama, however, has already reached his command decision when he says he will begin a troop pullout if he is sworn in as president next January, presumably whether Iraq is crawling with Al Qaeda forces or not.

McCain thinks this posture the height of folly. He repeated his goal of "an Iraq that no longer needs American troops" and his belief that "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, McCain, focused on eliminating Al Qaeda as a serious threat in Iraq; on the other, Obama, acknowledging Al Qaeda's presence as a force to be reckoned with, but willing to abandon the fight in any event.

Donald Lambro

Donald Lambro is chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.