Starting at 9:30 this morning, room 325 of the Russell Senate Office Building is only big enough for one reputation -- either Army General George W. Casey's or Sen. John McCain's (R-AZ).
Today the Senate Armed Services Committee takes up Casey's nomination to become the next Army Chief of Staff. For the last two years, Casey has had a far more stressful job: corps commander in Iraq, where he presided over a deteriorating and calamitous war. Consistently during his tenure, Casey promised that stability -- and subsequent troop reductions -- were just a few months away, only to have to renege. Just as consistently, Casey argued that increasing U.S. troop strength would deepen the Iraqis' sense of occupation and build an unhealthy dependency on U.S. troops.
McCain has also been consistent: he's backed a massive infusion of U.S. troops regardless of the changing circumstances of the war. And since he's counting on supporters of President Bush's relentless stance on the war to propel him to the party's nomination, criticizing Bush too much on Iraq has been a danger. Luckily for McCain, Bush renounced Casey's Iraqis-first approach in favor of escalation. Problem solved for McCain: Casey becomes the scapegoat. On a January 21 "Meet The Press" appearance, McCain blasted
Casey's "failed leadership" and said he had "serious concerns" about Casey's nomination as Army chief.
What we'll see today is whether Casey -- who has a reputation for loyalty -- will take McCain's slights lying down. According to a well-placed source, last week Casey called McCain and told the senator he didn't appreciate McCain's shots at his integrity. (Yesterday, McCain spokeswoman Melissa Sheffield confirmed that Casey and McCain have exchanged a number of calls, but wouldn't comment on what's been said in any of them.) But McCain hasn't backed down. When prospective Central Command chief Admiral Bill Fallon went before the committee on Tuesday, McCain pointedly said that he hadn't gotten "candid" assessments from top Iraq commanders in the past -- prompting a host of senators to defend both Casey and outgoing CENTCOM head General John Abizaid.
Stay tuned: with the Senate in open revolt over Bush's plans to escalate the war, this may be the most monumental Iraq hearing since a previous Army chief of staff -- General Eric Shinseki -- warned Congress about an earlier failed strategy.