Lawmakers chafe at steady-state Iraq policy
Senate Democrats to try again to force a faster exit of US troops.
Two days of marathon testimony from America's senior commander in Iraq and its top diplomat there gave a new impetus to lawmakers in Congress who aim to force a change of course in Iraq.Skip to next paragraph
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If not, the United States could be facing at least a 10-year presence in Iraq, said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi after a closed meeting Tuesday between congressional leaders and President Bush. As early as next week, Senate Democrats say, they will make another run at passing bipartisan legislation to force a faster exit of US forces than the one Mr. Bush is expected to outline in a televised address Thursday at 9 p.m. EDT.
In testimony this week on progress on the ground in Iraq, Army Gen. David Petraeus and US Ambassador Ryan Crocker said they would advise Bush to begin a drawdown of US forces from Iraq by mid-December and to reduce the number of combat troops to pre-"surge" levels – about 130,000 – by mid-July 2008. The president is likely to embrace that general framework in his speech Thursday, with the caveat that conditions in Iraq must be improving. It will take more time, perhaps until March, to determine if and when troop levels can be drawn down further, Bush is expected to say.
"We're watching political theater at its most complex here," says Winslow Wheeler, director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Center for Defense Information, a nonpartisan think tank on security policy. "The president will say he's just doing what the generals told him. The Democrats are playing their role by being critical. Then, the president will say that whatever bad happens is their fault, because they didn't give their complete support. But the whole performance is deep cover for getting out."
Much more than US troop levels was on the minds of senators – including some Republicans who have backed the president's war strategy – as they questioned General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker Tuesday during nearly 10 hours of consecutive hearings. Some questioned whether Iraqis want to live in a unified Iraq – and, if not, what kind of Iraqi government and society the US could reasonably expect to see.
"The greatest risk for United States policy is not that we are incapable of making progress but that this progress may be largely beside the point, given the divisions that now afflict Iraqi society," said Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Already, congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle are scrambling to see whether the Petraeus-Crocker testimony has shifted any members' views on the war and the US war strategy. Next week, the Senate is on track to take up the fiscal 2008 defense authorization bill, which could become the vehicle for new initiatives pertaining to the war.
"There has to be a lot of sifting that has to go on right now separating fact from fiction," says Tom Andrews, national director of Win without War, a coalition of antiwar groups. "A part of this is going to be up to the Congress – how they frame this information and what they do with it."
Sens. Carl Levin (D) of Michigan and Jack Reed (D) of Rhode Island say they are recasting a measure that originally called for beginning the withdrawal of US forces 120 days after the bill passes, to end by April 30, 2008. In July, the amendment fell eight votes short of overcoming a Republican filibuster.
"We owe it to the American people to come up with a pathway home," says Sen. Gordon Smith (R) of Oregon, who voted for the Levin-Reed amendment and says he is talking to GOP colleagues to build support for a new version of the measure. [Editor's note: The original version listed the wrong state for Senator Smith.]