Tipping Point for War's Supporters?

By Thomas E. Ricks and Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, October 29, 2006

As the fighting in Iraq swerved toward civil war in February, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John W. Warner (R-Va.) expressed "a high degree of confidence" that a new government would take charge and that by the end of the year the conflict "won't be the same."

As October opened, Warner returned from Iraq with a far grimmer assessment. "The situation," he said, "is simply drifting sidewise." His judgment gave voice to Republican doubt that had been suppressed in a campaign season. Lawmakers who had vowed to "stay the course" called for change. One GOP senator declared Iraq "on the verge of chaos." By last week, President Bush was saying he too is "not satisfied" and is looking for a fresh approach.

October 2006 may be remembered as the month that the U.S. experience in Iraq hit a tipping point, when the violence flared and shook both the military command in Iraq and the political establishment back in Washington.

Plans to stabilize Baghdad collided with a surge in violence during the holy month of Ramadan. Sectarian revenge killings spread, consuming a town 50 miles from the capital. U.S. officials spoke of setting benchmarks for the Iraqi government to take on more responsibility, only to have the Iraqi prime minister call that suggestion election-year grandstanding. Bush compared the situation to the 1968 Tet Offensive -- often seen as a turning point in the Vietnam War -- and urged Americans not to become disillusioned.

"October has been very busy from a standpoint of operations on the ground and certainly back here in Washington," White House counselor Dan Bartlett said.

With Iraq again dominating the national dialogue right before key midterm elections, "there's an expectation in the air that after the election, the partisanship and the politically charged environment will dissipate somewhat and people can start looking for ways to work together on this issue," Bartlett said.

Republicans are anxious about what happens in the meantime; polls show wide discontent. "Republicans are responding to the nervousness of the American people," said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.). "People have begun to wonder about the basic premise that the Iraqi people are capable of solving their problems politically."

If October does prove to be a turning point for the Iraq war, historians are likely to point to two events, one in domestic U.S. politics and the other in Iraq.

The first was Warner's visit to Baghdad. As the chairman of Armed Services, a stalwart Bush supporter and a pillar of the Republican establishment, he rattled much of Washington with his dour assessment Oct. 5. If events have not improved in 60 to 90 days, he said, the Bush administration should find a new course. While still opposed to a precipitous troop withdrawal, Warner made clear that staying the course is no longer a viable option.

Warner's comments proved to be the starting gun for a race toward an exit strategy. Other Republicans had nursed similar doubts but kept quiet for fear of giving Democrats ammunition in a tough campaign cycle. Warner's remarks freed them to express their own misgivings.

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, a Republican from the president's state of Texas, began talking about the need for a different approach in Iraq, such as partition. In Virginia, Sen. George Allen, who maintained in September that he would not "second-guess" the war, said that "mistakes have been made, and progress has been far too slow." More Republican candidates called for Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld to be fired.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), a strong Bush supporter, was struck that Warner's comments echoed those of the ranking Democrat on Armed Services, Sen. Carl M. Levin (Mich.), who has advocated putting more pressure on the Iraqi government.

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