Bush faces Republican backlash over Iraq
By Jim Lobe
WASHINGTON - President George W Bush's decision to escalate US military
intervention in Iraq and issue new threats against Syria and Iran appears to
have left him politically more isolated than ever.
Both Democrats and Republicans expressed regret that Bush appeared to reject
the central recommendations of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group (ISG),
particularly its call gradually to withdraw US combat troops, tie future
support for the Iraqi government to its
efforts at healing the sectarian divide, and directly engage Iran and Syria,
along with Baghdad's other neighbors, to stabilize the country.
At the same time, military analysts said the 21,500 troops Bush plans to add to
the 132,000 already deployed to Iraq are unlikely to succeed in their mission
to pacify Baghdad and al-Anbar province.
"I don't think 21,000 troops is enough," said retired Lieutenant-General Dan
Christman, who also noted that the deployment dangerously reduces Washington's
ability to deal with other potential military crises, such as Afghanistan or
the Horn of Africa. "The 21,000 constitutes the bulk of our strategic reserve,"
he told CNN. "That's my big worry."
Sensing Bush's growing vulnerability, Democrats in Congress are planning to
force a series of votes in the coming weeks designed to underline opposition to
the president's strategic direction by disaffected Republicans as well as
increasingly aggressive Democratic majorities in both houses.
As many as a dozen Republican senators are expected to vote as early as next
week for a resolution proposed by the Senate Democratic leadership expressing
disapproval of the troop increase, or "surge".
"What we see is an awful lot of people on both sides of the aisle saying this
is not the right policy," said Jim Cason, of the Friends Committee on National
Legislation, a lobby group opposed to the Iraq war.
While the Senate resolution would not be binding on Bush, who plans to begin
deploying the additional troops on Monday, it would lay the foundation for
conditioning future funding for the war on a phased withdrawal, according to
its sponsors. The first opportunity is likely to come next month when the
administration is expected to ask Congress to approve some US$100 billion in
additional funding for military operations this year in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"If we can get a majority [on the non-binding resolution], that would be the
first step toward turning this ship around," said the new Democratic chairman
of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Carl Levin.
Indeed, less than 18 hours after the speech, a number of senior Republicans,
including the ranking Republicans on the Senate Foreign Relations and Armed
Services committees, Richard Lugar and John Warner, respectively, indicated
they had strong reservations about the new strategy.
Others, including Senator Chuck Hagel and, remarkably, the party's most
right-wing candidate for the 2008 presidential nomination, Senator Sam
Brownback, said they opposed the surge.
"I do not believe that sending more troops to Iraq is the answer," Brownback, a
longtime favorite of the Christian Right, said in a statement released from
Baghdad, where he met this week with senior US and Iraqi officials, including
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.
"Instead of surging troops, we must press the Iraqi government to reach a
political solution," Brownback said, echoing what has become a Democratic
mantra since their victory in the November mid-term elections. "The best way to
reach a democratic Iraq is to empower the Iraqis to take responsibility for
their own nation-building."
Hagel is a conservative whose outspoken opposition to Bush's Middle East policy
has until now made him the darkest horse in the race for the 2008 presidential
nomination. He told Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice during a Foreign
Relations Committee hearing on Thursday that he considered Bush's strategy,
particularly his new threats against Syria and Iran, to be "the most dangerous
foreign-policy blunder in this country since Vietnam - if it's carried out".
In his speech, Bush had charged both countries with granting safe passage in
and out of Iraq to "terrorists and insurgents" and accused Iran in particular
of "providing material support for attacks on American troops".
In response, he announced the deployment of a second aircraft-carrier strike
group to the Persian Gulf and pledged to "destroy the networks providing
advanced weaponry and training to our enemies in Iraq".
In what appeared to be a deliberate ratcheting-up of tensions with Tehran,
helicopter-borne US troops raided the Iranian Consulate in the Iraqi Kurdish
city of Irbil several hours later, reportedly taking five of its staff captive
and drawing protests from both Iran and local Kurdish authorities.
"When you set in motion the kind of policy that the president is talking about
here, it's very, very dangerous," said Hagel, while the committee's new
Democratic chairman, Joseph Biden, warned Rice that the administration lacked
the legal authority to carry out cross-border attacks on either Syria or Iran.
Nor were Brownback and Hagel the only likely presidential candidates to come
out in strong opposition to the surge. On the Democratic side, Senator Hillary
Clinton, the only likely 2008 candidate who had not explicitly rejected the
surge before Bush's speech, issued a statement late Wednesday denouncing the
"The president simply has not gotten the message sent loudly and clearly by the
American people that we desperately need a new course," she said. "The
president has not offered a new direction; instead he will continue to take us
down the wrong road - only faster."
Other Democrats who until now have previously been leery of breaking with Bush
made clear that they had had enough. "I have supported you and the
administration on the war, and I cannot continue to support the
administration's position," Florida Senator Ben Nelson told Rice on Thursday.
"And I don't come to this conclusion very lightly."
At the same time, the congressional Democratic leadership issued their own
joint statement that, for the first time, in effect endorsed the main
recommendations of the ISG, the bipartisan group co-chaired by former secretary
of state James Baker and former Democratic congressman Lee Hamilton.
Instead of sending more troops, the leadership wrote, the US should reduce its
combat role in favor of training, logistics and counter-terrorism operations;
begin the phased "redeployment", or withdrawal, of US forces from Iraq within
six months; implement an "aggressive diplomatic strategy, both within the
region and beyond", to help stabilize Iraq; and condition future US support on
steps by Iraq's leaders to end sectarian conflict and reach a political
"Last night, the president chose, fundamentally, to ignore the foundation built
by the Iraq Study Group [on] a bipartisan basis, and knowingly and willfully
divided the country yet again ... over this issue," Senator John Kerry - like
both Biden and Clinton, a likely 2008 presidential candidate - complained to
In his remarks on Wednesday, Bush explicitly rejected any withdrawal at this
point, insisting that "to step back now would force a collapse of the Iraqi
government". In her testimony on Thursday, Rice also rejected the ISG's call
for direct negotiations with Syria and Iran, arguing that such an effort would
"put us in the role of supplicant, and that is a problem".
Even some neo-conservatives, the most diehard of Bush's defenders, said they
were skeptical that his plan would succeed. "I wouldn't give it 50:50 odds,"
said New York Times columnist David Brooks, who said he nonetheless supports it
because "it's the only thing on the table".
For Lawrence Kaplan, a senior editor of The New Republic, however, Bush has
already lost the war at home. "An effective counterinsurgency strategy requires
time and patience. Americans have run out of both," he wrote on Thursday.