By Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 1, 2007
CRAWFORD, Tex., Dec. 31 -- Republican lawmakers appear uneasy about -- and in some cases outright dismissive of -- the idea of sending many more troops to Iraq, as President Bush contemplates such a "surge" as part of his new strategy for stabilizing the country.
Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), a leading GOP presidential contender for 2008, has been aggressively promoting a plan to send tens of thousands of additional troops to Iraq, and the idea has been gaining traction at the White House as a way to improve security in Baghdad.
But the proposition generates far less enthusiasm among rank-and-file Republicans, many of whom must face the voters again in 2008, presenting a potential obstacle for Bush as he hones the plan, according to lawmakers, aides and congressional analysts.
Two Senate Republicans with potentially tough reelection contests in 2008, Minnesota's Norm Coleman and Maine's Susan Collins, returned from recent trips to Iraq saying they did not think sending more troops was a good idea. Branding the U.S. war effort "absurd," Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) made waves in early December with a speech questioning the continued presence of troops.
And while other Republicans say they are open to the president's proposal, some made it clear that they will only be supportive if the troops have a coherent mission and the deployment is linked to a larger political strategy for reconciling feuding sects.
Sen. Sam Brownback (Kan.), another possible presidential contender, said in an interview Saturday that he could favor more troops if they were a "precursor" to political stability. But he added: "A short-term buildup in troops, if it simply is to impose military order without the possibility of political equilibrium, that doesn't seem to me to be too farsighted."
"We have got to get to some acceptable balance between the Sunnis and Shiites," Brownback said. "We cannot impose a military solution."
In a separate interview, Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), a supporter of the Iraq war who serves on the Armed Services Committee, said he has been "cautious" in his recommendations to the White House about the need for a troop increase. For instance, if Bush proposes additional troops to help train Iraqi forces or to clean out a specific part of Baghdad, Chambliss said he could support that as long as it was understood the troops would "get out" after the mission was accomplished.
"I don't want to send more troops on a general wartime basis without them having a specific mission," said Chambliss, who is also up for reelection in 2008.
Appearing on "Fox News Sunday," the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Richard G. Lugar (Ind.), said he does not know "whether I do or do not" support more troops and advised the president to consult much more seriously with Congress about Iraq than he has in the past. "There's been an election; Republicans lost the election," he said.
Indeed, the opening of the new Congress this week, with Democrats in control of both sides of the Capitol for the first time in 12 years, promises to affect the president's Iraq policy. Under GOP control, Congress strongly supported the invasion and most of Bush's Iraq initiatives, but Democrats have signaled that they will subject his plans to much greater scrutiny and oversight.
President Bush will not formally unveil his new Iraq plan until sometime in early January, but a wide array of administration officials expect that one key element would be deploying as many as 20,000 additional troops to the Baghdad area to help clear neighborhoods and regain security. Bush is also considering economic initiatives aimed at wooing disaffected young people from armed struggle, as well as establishing milestones for political progress by the Iraqi government.
Bush has been hoping for bipartisan support for his new policy. But with the exception of Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (Conn.), comments from the leading Democratic experts on national security matters last week indicated strong opposition to any plan that would involve increasing troops in Iraq beyond the current level of roughly 140,000 soldiers. And while McCain has been joined by Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.) in promoting the idea of sending more troops, many other Republicans appear to be laying back.
"Republicans are scared to death of it politically," said Ed Rogers, a top GOP lobbyist with ties to the White House and Republican leaders on the Hill. "The fear is that it won't make any difference. There won't be a perception of turning the corner."
The top GOP leaders on the Hill appear to be taking a wait-and-see attitude. Kevin Smith, spokesman for House Republican Leader John A. Boehner (Ohio), said "it will be important to get a clear sense of how any additional troops will fit into the overall strategy of rooting out the terrorist and insurgent elements in Iraq, and helping the Iraqis stabilize their democracy."
Incoming GOP Senate leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) said in a statement that it would be premature to comment "until the White House and General [Peter] Pace articulate the tasks and mission associated with any surge."
Sen. John E. Sununu (R-N.H.), a member of the Foreign Relations Committee who also is up for reelection in 2008, said the president's new plan must address "not only the security needs of large cities like Baghdad, but also the very significant internal changes that need to take place in Iraq to assure long-term stability." He cited such steps as a new oil law that spreads the wealth from the country's major natural resource and going ahead with provincial elections that could give more authority to the minority Sunni population, which has been disaffected by the Shiite empowerment.
Sununu declined to say what he thinks about more troops, but one of his colleagues from the Northeast, Maine's Collins, said she was flatly opposed to the idea after discussing it with commanders and Iraqis during a trip with McCain, Graham and Lieberman.
"I don't think the addition of new American troops in a situation plagued by sectarian strife is the answer," Collins said. "I think more American troops will present more American targets."
She said in an interview that she was also influenced by a meeting the senators had with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. "The prime minister made it pretty clear that he did not welcome the idea of more American troops," she said. "I would speculate that he recognizes that he needs to take control of the situation, that if he's seen as completely dependent on American troops it's difficult for him to establish his legitimacy."
Rep. Peter T. King (N.Y.), the top Republican on the Homeland Security Committee, cautioned that broad GOP support is conditioned on the way Bush presents the idea.
"If the military believes it would work, I would support it," King said. "A lot of it depends on how he makes his case. You will not see the same automatic support for the president as you have for the last few years . . . I have questions myself, but I just think it would be a disaster to pull out of Iraq."
Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) said Sunday on CNN's "Late Edition" that at this point he could not support more troops for Iraq. "If there is a road map to victory, then I would be prepared to listen to what the president has to say about more troops. But on this date of the record, I do not see it," he said.
Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.