WASHINGTON – Arizona Sen. John McCain, a chief proponent of the Iraq war, wasted no time Thursday letting the Army general leading operations in Iraq know how little he thinks of his management of the war.
"While I do not in any way question your honor, your patriotism or your service to our country, I do question some of the decisions and judgments you have made over the past two and a half years as commander of Multi-National Forces in Iraq," McCain told Gen. George Casey.
"During that time, things have gotten markedly and progressively worse, and the situation in Iraq can now best be described as dire and deteriorating," McCain added.
Casey, who has been in the top military post in Iraq for the past 2 1/2 years, was in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee for his confirmation hearing to be the next Army chief of staff. His replacement, Lt. Gen. David Petraeus, is preparing to leave for Iraq following his confirmation to the job by the Senate last week.
McCain did not openly oppose Casey's nomination but said he would like Casey to explain why his "assessment of the situation in Iraq has differed so radically from that of most observers and why your predictions of future success have been so unrealistically rosy."
Noting a number of positive predictions Casey had made that did not meet expectations, McCain said, "I have expressed serious concerns about your nomination as Army chief of staff. My strong reservations persist and look forward to your testimony this morning.
For his part, Casey acknowledged the impact of sectarian violence on the stability of Iraq and gave his vote of confidence for President Bush's newest strategy, which calls for a surge of military forces and covers political and economic areas as well. He added that he believes the plan could be carried out with fewer troops than the 21,500 requested by the president, but the extra brigades will only add to the stabilizing force.
"The struggle in Iraq is winnable, but it will, as I have said before to this committee, take patience and will," Casey said.
Casey also disagreed with the assessments of other military officials who McCain quoted calling the strategy to date "a failed policy in Iraq."
"Senator, I do not agree that we have a failed policy. I believe the president's new strategy will enhance the policy that we have," he said.
"So you disagree with the secretary of defense, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Admiral [William] Fallon that we had a failed policy?" McCain asked again.
"I do, Senator. I do not believe that the current policy has failed," Casey said.
McCain wasn't the only Republican who gave Casey a tough time. Sen. Lindsay Graham of South Carolina said that planning for Iraq hasn't been substantial enough, and U.S. military forces aren't robust enough to succeed.
"Could I go to Fallujah tomorrow? Could I go downtown to Fallujah tomorrow as a senator?" Graham asked.
"You could," Casey replied.
"Well, I asked to go and they wouldn't let me," Graham said. "I asked to go to Ramadi and they wouldn't let me."
"Ramadi's a little tougher, senator," Casey replied, estimating for Graham that about half of the country is safe enough for an American to walk down the street without being afraid of being shot at or killed.
Casey's nomination is part of a flurry of activity related to the president's Jan. 10 Iraq policy address. If confirmed he will replace Gen. Peter Schoomaker, who is retiring from the military.
On Tuesday, the Senate Armed Services Committee heard from Adm. William Fallon, who commands Asia-Pacific operations for the Navy and was nominated by the president to take control of U.S. Central Command, replacing Gen. John Abizaid, who retires in March.
Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., a co-sponsor with ranking Republican John Warner, R-Va., of a non-binding resolution criticizing the troop buildup plan, asked Casey what consequences the Iraqis would face if they miss the political benchmarks outlined by the president.
"If they're unwilling, the Iraqis are unwilling to move forward in Sadr City against Muqtada al-Sadr and the Mahdi Army, would that be a pretty good indication that the plan is not succeeding or would that be a reason to believe that maybe our commitment to Iraq should be re-evaluated?" Nelson asked.
Casey responded: "It's a hypothetical, Senator, but ... if we were denied access to Sadr City, I would consider that a significant breach in the commitments that the prime minister has already made, and we would have to have serious discussions with the government."
Casey said that while American forces had previously been denied access to military targets by Iraqi leaders, that has not happened in the last two months.
Warner also put tough questions to Casey, asking why the new forces are needed.
"Why are we not putting greater emphasis on utilization of Iraqi forces and less on the U.S. GI being put into that cauldron of terror?" Warner asked.
Casey said Iraqis are taking more of a lead role, but are not yet ready to fight without U.S. support.