Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) called on President Bush yesterday to begin withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq after Sunday's elections and complete the pullout by early next year, declaring the president's Iraq policy "a catastrophic failure" that is only "fanning the flames of conflict."
Kennedy, one of the most searing critics of the war, said the conflict is being perpetuated by the continuing presence of U.S. forces and the Iraqi perception of being occupied. He laid out his five-point exit strategy, which envisions turning over the battle to the new Iraqi government chosen this weekend, possibly aided by a U.N. military contingent.
"It is time to recognize that there is only one choice: America must give Iraq back to the Iraqi people," Kennedy said in a speech at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies. "We have no choice but to make the best we can of the disaster we have created in Iraq. The current course is only making the crisis worse."
Warning against a repeat of mistakes made during the Vietnam War, Kennedy proposed withdrawing 12,000 of the 150,000 U.S. troops in Iraq "immediately" and the rest "as early as possible in 2006." He acknowledged that pulling out might exacerbate the fighting. "There may well be violence as we disengage militarily from Iraq and Iraq disengages from us," he said. "But there will be much more serious violence if we continue our present dangerous and reckless course."
The White House dismissed Kennedy's remarks. "I think his views are well known," press secretary Scott McClellan said. "The president's views are well known, as well." The Republican National Committee responded more sharply, blasting the speech as a "partisan political attack" and saying "no democracy has ever risen out of defeatism."
The Army expects to keep its troop level unchanged for at least two more years, its top operations officer said this week, and at a news conference Wednesday, Bush declined to lay out a timetable for withdrawal. "Obviously, we'll have the troop levels necessary to complete the mission," he said. "And that mission is to enable Iraq to defend herself from terrorists."
In issuing his plan, Kennedy became the most prominent member of Congress to urge pulling out the troops. Earlier this week, Rep. Martin T. Meehan (D-Mass.) advocated withdrawing all but a force of 30,000 by year's end, and a group of House Democrats introduced a troop pullout resolution on the floor. Republican Rep. Howard Coble (N.C.) said recently that the United States should consider withdrawal if the Iraqi government is unwilling or unable to "shoulder more of the heavy lifting."