WASHINGTON – The Republican revolt against President Bush’s war strategy accelerated Friday as two of the party’s most respected voices on national security proposed legislation envisioning a major realignment of U.S. troops in Iraq starting as early as Jan. 1.
Defying Bush even as his team fanned out to press Congress for more time, Sens. John Warner, R-Va., and Richard Lugar, R-Ind., unveiled a measure requiring the White House to begin drawing up plans to redeploy U.S. forces from frontline combat to border security and counter-terrorism. But the legislation would not force Bush to implement the plans at this point.
The proposal fell short of Democratic demands to set a firm timetable for withdrawal but underscored the continuing erosion of the president’s position among Republicans on Capitol Hill, and it could shape the debate as Congress wrestles with its position on the war. Votes in both houses this week demonstrated that war opponents do not have enough support to overcome a Bush veto, and it remains unclear whether the two sides can reach a bipartisan consensus.
The action on Capitol Hill came as the Bush administration launched a diplomatic offensive intended to rally Sunni Muslim governments in the Middle East to come to Iraq’s aid if only to maintain a buffer zone against Iran. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates will travel to the region together next month to push Egypt and Saudi Arabia to do more to help the foundering Iraqi government.
At the same time, the U.S. military tried Friday to show that it is making progress toward troop redeployment without congressional mandate, disclosing its intent to significantly reduce forces in the largely peaceful northern Iraq beginning as early as January. The general who commands U.S. forces in the area told reporters that he has presented his superiors a plan to cut troops there in half over 12 to 18 months.
But Bush aides acknowledged they failed to pressure the Iraqi parliament to remain in session in August to advance long-stalled legislation deemed crucial to political reconciliation. “My understanding is at this juncture they’re going to take August off, but you know, they may change their minds,” said White House press secretary Tony Snow. He added sympathetically: “You know, it’s 130 degrees in Baghdad in August.”
A White House report to Congress released Thursday concluded that the Baghdad government has not made satisfactory progress toward political changes intended to ease sectarian tensions fueling the war. If the Iraqis do not meet the congressionally mandated goals by Sept. 15, the law signed by Bush threatens to cut off aid, and the failure would be likely to bolster war opponents on Capitol Hill.
The measure proposed by Warner and Lugar Friday would amend the Senate’s defense authorization bill. While the bulk of it is nonbinding, it would require the White House to present a realignment plan to Congress by Oct. 16, forcing the White House to begin work well before the September progress report from Gen. David Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker.
Bush implored Congress on Thursday to wait for Petraeus’s assessment before trying to change strategy.
“Senator Warner and I have tried to approach the current situation by asking, `What should happen now, even if the president has not changed course?’ ” Lugar said in remarks prepared for delivery on the Senate floor.
Lugar and Warner carry particular weight as two of the party’s leading authorities on national security. Until Democrats took over in January, Lugar was chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee and Warner was chairman of the Armed Services Committee.
Yet Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has shown no interest in working with rebellious Republicans if they do not support a firm withdrawal date.
“We are not going to stop,” Reid told reporters after Bush’s news conference Thursday. “We are going to continue facing down this bad policy. It is not good for America. It’s not good for the world.”
Although the House this week voted again in favor of a fixed withdrawal date next year, it remains unclear what measure, if any, could pass the Senate, where 60 votes are needed to break a filibuster. In May, Warner and other Republicans skeptical about Bush’s war strategy were able to break through the Senate’s logjam by proposing the 18 benchmarks measured in this week’s interim White House report.
Aside from the redeployment plan, the latest Warner-Lugar measure also endorsed an idea advocated by many Democrats, including Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y. – a new vote on authorizing the war.
Unlike Clinton, who proposed ending the 2002 congressional authorization and requiring Bush to return to Congress to seek new authority, the Warner-Lugar measure merely states that Congress “expects” Bush to submit a new request.
But it gives the Democrats bragging rights for netting GOP converts.
“Senator Warner and Senator Lugar have acknowledged what Senator Clinton and I have been saying for a long time,” said her co-sponsor, Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W-Va. “Let’s erase that outdated resolution and have the president seek the nation’s approval for his new mission in Iraq.”
Administration officials tried to counter momentum for change in a series of public appearances and private lobbying. Gates and Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, echoed Bush’s call to wait until the Petraeus-Crocker report, and Gates said recent success in reducing sectarian violence and earning help from Sunni leaders against al-Qaida could be important signs.
“We respect Senators Warner and Lugar and will review carefully the language they have proposed, but we believe the new-way-forward strategy, which became fully operational less than a month ago, deserves the time to succeed,” said White House spokesman Tony Fratto.
“We look forward to hearing from General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker in September.”
National security adviser Stephen Hadley told National Public Radio that he expects U.S. troops to be in Iraq after Bush leaves office, though perhaps in a reconfigured mission.
“Will we be engaged in Iraq after January 2009?” Hadley said. “I think the president hopes so. And I think if you listen to people like Senator Lugar, they believe that a precipitous withdrawal would be bad for American interests, and they believe we need to find a basis for being engaged in Iraq after January 2009.”
But military officials stressed that the complexion of the future force could change significantly. Maj. Gen. Benjamin Mixon, who commands U.S. troops in northern Iraq, forecast a reduction there if security permits.
“We could have a reduction of force that could begin in January of 2008, take about 12 to 18 months, to where we could have a minimum force here that would continue to work with the Iraqi forces in a training and assistance mode,” he told reporters in a videoconference from Iraq.
Gates and Rice will focus on the political track in their trip to Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Their strategy will be to appeal to Sunnis on a shared fear – the prospect of Iran’s Shiite government meddling in Iraq, U.S. officials said. Rice and Gates will point out that a Shiite-dominated Iraqi government could become a buffer because Iraqis do not like a foreign presence.
They will also point out that time is running out for Sunni governments as well as for the United States to stabilize Iraq, given growing congressional pressure to begin withdrawing U.S. troops.
Without intervention to encourage Iraq’s minority Sunnis to engage with the Shiite government, officials said, Rice and Gates will warn that reconciliation in Iraq will be even more difficult.