WASHINGTON -- John McCain had one goal in mind when his turn came to question David Petraeus about the Iraq war: to show that 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, the Arizona senator 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?" McCain 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," Petraeus replied.
"Certainly not an obscure sect of the Shiites," McCain said, then quickly correcting himself about the Sunni-dominated terrorist force, "or Sunnis or anybody else?"
"No," Petraeus answered.
"Al Qaeda continues to try to assert themselves in Mosul, is that correct? he asked.
"It is, senator," the four-star general responded, adding that, "Mosul and Nineveh province are areas that Al Qaeda is very much trying to hold on to."
Attempting to further nail down the point he was making, McCain asked again, "They continue to be a significant threat?"
"They do. Yes, sir," Petraeus responded.
Though he never mentioned the Democratic presidential frontrunner by name, McCain wanted to dismantle one of 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.
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. His argument essentially maintains that the U.S. presence in Iraq is the sole cause of Al Qaeda presence in the country.
You would not be able to find any declaration in any of his campaign speeches that Al Qaeda, the radical Islamic terrorist force that killed nearly 3,000 Americans 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 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. Obama 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 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.