Support for President Bush's policy in Iraq is fraying within his own party, probably sooner than he expected.
Two key Republican senators have gone public this week with calls for a change of course in Iraq, including troop reductions, putting the Bush administration on the defensive and fueling questions over whether the president will have even until September to turn the war around.
When Mr. Bush launched the "surge" in US forces in Iraq earlier this year, aimed at bolstering security and allowing the Iraqis some breathing room for political and economic reforms and military training, he also won a Sept. 15 deadline to report progress.
Now, says Richard Lugar, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, "the costs and risks of continuing down the current path outweigh the potential benefits that might be achieved." The Indiana senator made the unannounced speech late Monday night. The next day, another Republican committee member, Sen. George Voinovich of Ohio, also issued a call for reduced military engagement in Iraq and greater emphasis on diplomacy. The two men join four other Republican senators who have gone on the record calling for a new approach in Iraq.
But it is Senator Lugar's public break with the administration that is most significant. The six-term senator, whom White House spokesman Tony Snow referred to as "thoughtful" even as he rejected Lugar's ideas, commands respect from both parties for his studious approach to foreign policy.
"This is a major step," says Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. "[Lugar] wants to be sure we don't hit a wall up ahead. It's also a reflection of reality. A president can say and believe all he wants that politics won't matter, public opinion won't matter; he's going to do what he thinks is right."
But, Mr. Ornstein adds, Bush's experience mirrors that of President Johnson's when the public, and members of his own party in Congress, turned against the Vietnam War. The lesson is, "no matter how determined you are, there comes a point when you can't do what you want to do," he says. "And the key to this has been when Bush begins to lose Republicans."
The White House sought to downplay Lugar's comments, saying they were nothing new. Indeed, Lugar has been known to be skeptical toward the surge from the beginning, and had conveyed his concerns to Bush in January privately. Another key senator on military matters, John Warner (R) of Virginia, also attended that meeting and praised Lugar for making a contribution to the debate with his Monday speech. All eyes are on Warner to see if he goes a step further and joins the chorus calling for a change of strategy.
Another key figure to watch is Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the top Republican in the Senate, with whom Lugar consulted before his Monday night speech. In late May, after Bush signed supplemental legislation funding the Iraq and Afghan wars, Senator McConnell said that "the handwriting is on the wall that we are going in a different direction in the fall, and I expect the president to lead it."
Democrats have been promoting the idea that Lugar's speech represents a turning point in the war, as the public grows increasingly impatient with daily US casualties and the overall level of violence in Iraq remains steady despite increases in US troops and military operations.
Experts on the politics of war caution against over-reading the importance of Lugar's speech, but agree that it's an important moment. "I don't know if it's a tipping point; I'm not sure if those exist," says John Mueller, a political scientist at Ohio State University in Columbus. "But it continues the slide, and other signals have been coming out, such as McConnell saying the 'handwriting is on the wall.' "
In his speech, Lugar said he did not doubt the assessments of military commanders reporting some progress in security, and he asserted that "we should attempt to preserve initiatives that have shown promise," such as engaging Sunni groups that are disaffected with Al Qaeda. But in concluding that the current course should not continue, he cited three factors: The political fragmentation of Iraq, the growing stress on the US military, and the constraints of the US political process.
On the first point, he expressed doubt that Iraqi factional leaders will be able to implement a political settlement in the short run, and sees "no convincing evidence that Iraqis will make the compromises necessary to solidify a functioning government and society…"
On the second point, he asserted that the window during which the US can continue to employ its troops in Iraq neighborhoods without damaging US military strength is closing.
On the third point, Lugar called for a bipartisan approach to fashioning a new Iraq strategy before the presidential campaign goes into full swing. He warned that if Bush pursues the surge strategy until the end of his administration, there would be "extreme risks" to US national security, including the possibility of a "poorly planned withdrawal from Iraq or possibly the broader Middle East region that could damage US interests for decades."