By Charles Babington and Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, June 22, 2005
Congressional Democrats, after months of sporadic and often tepid critiques of the administration's handling of the Iraq war, are sharpening their criticisms and demanding that President Bush say more about the mission's difficulties and his plans for surmounting them.
A blunt speech yesterday by Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.), who said disaster in Iraq is "a real possibility," was the latest example of mainstream Democrats becoming more forceful in expressing their alarm as polls show drooping support for the war. The Senate's 44 Democrats plan to meet today to discuss Iraq.
"There is rising concern that everything seems to be going the wrong way," Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said in an interview. "Support is dropping drastically." Bush, she said, "has got to give regular progress reports" to Congress and the public on topics such as the training of Iraqi troops and police to take over their nation's security. "It has to be the president," she said. "It's his war."
Despite the notable surge in such comments, only the most left-leaning Democrats have called for specific changes to Bush's policies, such as setting a schedule for withdrawing U.S. troops. Most Democrats are sticking to familiar themes, such as urging allies to help pacify Iraq and to train Iraqi troops and police.
"It is a challenge now to try to fix the mess that has been made by this administration," Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) said in an interview. "There aren't any easy answers. It would be irresponsible to just spout off without having thought through what all the alternatives -- and implications of those alternatives -- might be."
Biden, the Foreign Relations Committee's ranking Democrat, delivered one of the most pointed and detailed critiques yet of Bush's Iraq policies in a speech at the Brookings Institution in Washington. Biden, who announced Sunday that he may run for president in 2008 (he also ran briefly in 1987), recently returned from a fifth visit to Iraq and said the administration's optimistic comments are baseless.
"I did not come away with the impression that the insurgency was, as the vice president of the United States suggested, 'in its last throes,' " Biden said. "And unlike the president, I am not 'pleased with the progress' we're making." He called the comments part of the administration's "long litany of rosy assessments, misleading statements and premature declarations of victory. . . . The disconnect between the administration's rhetoric and the reality on the ground has opened up not just a credibility gap but a credibility chasm," which is "fueling cynicism that is undermining the single most important weapon we need to give our troops to be able to do their jobs, and that is the unyielding support of the American people."
Biden said the administration "should develop with Congress clear benchmarks and goals in key areas: security, governance and politics, reconstruction and burden-sharing." Congress, he said, should insist that "the administration report on the progress toward those goals every month in public testimony. I'd expect the administration to detail what they think they've achieved, where they think they've fallen short, why they've fallen short and what help they need to in fact regain the initiative."
Biden said the United States should have allies such as France, Egypt and Jordan help "train Iraqi troops outside of Iraq," and "press our NATO allies to come up with a small force of some 3,000 to 5,000 to help guard Iraq's borders."
White House officials have said the president will begin to address public concerns more directly next week.
The Democrats' newly aggressive posture reflects declining public support for Bush's Iraq policies and growing skepticism that the administration has a plan for success that will allow the withdrawal of U.S. forces anytime soon. The most recent Washington Post-ABC News poll found that barely one-third of those surveyed said they believe the president has a plan for the eventual withdrawal of U.S. forces, and 52 percent said they did not believe the war had contributed to the long-term security of this country -- the first time a majority had expressed that opinion.
Democrats are far from agreeing on a party position on Iraq, but today's special caucus meeting marks one of the first occasions when party leaders have begun a discussion that may lead to a more united posture. There is clear reluctance to embrace anything that may be labeled an exit strategy despite the fact that a sizable percentage of Democratic activists want the troops brought home.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) described the Iraq war as a "grotesque mistake" last week and called for Bush to offer measurable criteria for determining when the time will be right to withdraw U.S. forces. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), one of the administration's harshest critics, plans another speech on the Senate floor today.
In an interview yesterday, Kennedy said, "We have to look at holding the administration accountable for the current situation, the cumulative missteps that have been taken, and what their policy is going to be to provide an exit strategy. . . . The idea that we're going to stay there as long as necessary and not a day longer" is no longer acceptable. He added: "We are not talking about cutting and running."
White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove defended the administration's policy yesterday on MSNBC's "Hardball." "This president is in connection, is in touch with the men and women who are on the front line of this war who are making the decisions and making the recommendations about our policy," he said.
Rove said that, despite some setbacks to the U.S. mission, the insurgents are failing. "Each time that the insurgents have sought to derail the process, they have failed," he said. "Their goal is to weaken our resolve by being so violent and so dangerous and so ugly that they hope that we will turn tail and run. They have misjudged the American people, though. And they have certainly misjudged this president."