GOP support on Iraq waning
WASHINGTON – Key Republican senators, signaling increasing GOP skepticism about President Bush’s strategy in Iraq, have called for a reduction in U.S. forces and launched pre-emptive efforts to counter a much-awaited administration progress report due in September.
In an unannounced speech on the Senate floor Monday night, Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., the ranking Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, said the U.S. military escalation begun in the spring has “very limited” prospects for success. He called on Bush to begin downsizing U.S. forces. “We don’t owe the president our unquestioning agreement,” Lugar said.
The harsh judgment from one of the Senate’s most respected foreign-policy voices was a blow to White House efforts to boost flagging support for its war policy, and opened the door to defections by other Republicans who have supported the administration despite increasing private doubts.
Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, sent a letter to Bush on Tuesday urging the president to develop “a comprehensive plan for our country’s gradual military disengagement” from Iraq. “I am also concerned that we are running out of time,” he wrote.
Sen. John Warner, R-Va., a member of the Armed Services Committee, praised Lugar’s statement as “an important and sincere contribution” to the Iraq debate.
Republican skepticism has grown steadily, if subtly, since the Senate began debating the war in February. One lawmaker who has changed his tone is Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, of Kentucky. Earlier this year, McConnell helped block from a vote even a nonbinding resolution opposing the troop increase. Now, he views a change in course as a given. “I anticipate that we’ll probably be going in a different direction in some way in Iraq” in September, McConnell told reporters earlier this month. “And it’ll be interesting to see what the administration chooses to do.”
Indeed, Republican leaders on Capitol Hill had been hoping to stave off further defections until after a report on military and political conditions in Iraq is delivered by Army Gen. David Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker in September. However, some in the GOP fear that the White House is stalling, hoping to delay any shift in U.S. strategy until the fall. A major test will come next month, when the Senate considers a series of withdrawal-related amendments to the defense authorization bill – and Republicans such as Lugar and Voinovich will have to officially break ranks or not.
White House spokesman Tony Snow said Tuesday that Bush hopes “members of the House and Senate will give the Baghdad security plan a chance to unfold.”
Lugar consulted with McConnell before delivering his speech, but not with the White House, according to Lugar spokesman Andy Fisher.
In his lengthy speech, Lugar cited several indicators that he said are working against U.S. success, including the Iraqis’ inability to reach a short-term political settlement, the strain on the U.S. military, and the constraints imposed by domestic politics in Washington. Bush and his team, Lugar said, “must come to grips” with reality.
However, he warned against a total withdrawal from Iraq. A “sustainable military posture” would downsize U.S. forces into a support role to help the Iraqi army, he said. Similarly, Voinovich called for “responsible military disengagement” from Iraq. “It is absolutely critical that we avoid being drawn into a precipitous withdrawal,” he said in a strategy paper that accompanied his letter to Bush.
Lugar first expressed concerns about the White House strategy during a private meeting that he and Warner had with Bush in the first week of January. Outlining his plans to dispatch nearly 30,000 more troops to Iraq, Bush argued that military escalation would give the Iraqis time to reconcile sectarian divisions. Since then, as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government has made no visible movement toward political reconciliation, the two senior GOP lawmakers have regularly voiced muted concern in public.
Republicans deflected Democratic demands for troop withdrawal timelines in last month’s war funding bill. But Lugar and Warner were among many GOP lawmakers who supported the inclusion of political and military benchmarks and a Sept. 15 deadline for a progress report from the administration. The legislation also required studies aimed at providing Congress with independent views on the conditions in Iraq.
One provision, sponsored by Warner, created a commission of retired four-star officers and other military experts to independently assess whether Iraqi security forces are willing or able to end their own sectarian divisions and take over a lead role in defending their country.
Warner said he knows that his push for the measure makes it appear that he does not trust Bush, Petraeus and Crocker to provide an honest report. “I accept that critique,” he said in an interview. “But what are we to do? Be totally reliant on the executive branch for their analysis?”
The 14-member commission, headed by retired Gen. James Jones, a former Marine commandant and until his retirement last year the Supreme Allied Commander Europe, held its first meeting Friday. It plans several trips to Iraq, and its report to Congress will be timed to provide an alternative to what lawmakers will hear in September from Petraeus and Crocker.
Congress has also tasked the Government Accountability Office with assessing Iraqi progress toward political goals, including the revision of the Iraqi constitution and the passing of laws on the distribution of Iraq’s oil wealth. And last week, the House voted to revive the Iraq Study Group, the bipartisan panel Congress created last year to develop policy options.
Bush initially rejected most of the study group’s recommendations, including the setting of performance benchmarks for the Iraqi government and the opening of regional talks with Iran and Syria. If its co-chairmen, former Secretary of State James Baker and former congressman Lee Hamilton, D-Ind., agree to reconstitute the group, it would provide new recommendations timed to coincide with the administration’s September report.
Although the recent war funding legislation calls for a cutoff in funds if the benchmarks are not met, Democrats note that the measure gives Bush the authority to waive that provision if he provides a “detailed justification” in writing. “Is there anybody here, based on the statements the president has made for the last five years, who doesn’t know exactly what the president is going to say with respect to progress?” Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., asked during a floor debate.
It was Petraeus who first set September as the time when he would be able to judge the success of Bush’s new strategy. More than 155,000 U.S. troops are now engaged in the stepped-up effort to stem sectarian and insurgent violence in Baghdad and the areas surrounding the capital. The administration has predicted that the anticipated calm will enable al-Maliki’s Shiite-dominated government to implement key political reforms .
Petraeus has been a popular figure on Capitol Hill, with his words given more weight than those from the White House. “Why don’t you wait and see what he says?” Bush said last month as Congress debated the funding bill. “General Petraeus picked this date; he believes that there will be enough progress one way or the other to be able to report to the American people, to give an objective assessment.”
The White House is hoping that Iraqi negotiators will, at least, have an agreed-upon package of new drafts of oil legislation by mid-July, when Bush owes Congress an interim report.
Al-Maliki’s office announced last Wednesday that it had granted the government committee that is writing the constitutional revisions a third extension in its deadline, until late July. Negotiations on a new de-Baathification law are reportedly moribund.
The government, after expressions of outrage from the U.S. Congress, has indicated that the parliament is prepared to cancel a scheduled two-month summer recess due to begin next month. But none of the benchmark legislation is ready for its consideration.
Democrats have indicated that nothing they hear in September is likely to convince them that Bush’s Iraq strategy is succeeding. They plan to offer several Iraq amendments to a Defense Department authorization bill scheduled for debate after the July 4 recess, including a March 31 funding cutoff. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Democrats will push “very, very hard” for the measure.
Reid on Tuesday hailed Lugar’s speech as a “potential turning point” in the debate, adding that he looks forward to Lugar putting “his words into action by delivering the responsible end to the war that the American people demand.”
Lugar made clear in his speech that he will oppose efforts to tie Bush’s hands in the upcoming legislation. Instead, he called on the White House to take the lead in changing strategy before the polarized Washington debate “increases the risk that our involvement in Iraq will end in a poorly planned withdrawal that undercuts our vital interests in the Middle East.”