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Lawmakers Demand Answers on New Iraq Plan
He also announced a change in the way the military can access the reserve and guard forces, limiting the reserves' deployments to the war to one year, with five years of rest afterwards. Currently the reserves can serve up to 24 months in a row. The move is designed to allow the active duty forces to serve one year in the field and then two years back at their home station, while many combat units now have been serving one year in the war and then one year at home.
Gates and Rice said it is imperative that the United States continue to seek success in Iraq, lest there be dangerous instability in the Middle East.
"Whatever one's view about how we got to this point, there is widespread agreement that failure would be a calamity that would haunt our country," Gates said.
Bush, in his speech to the military personnel and families in Ft. Benning, echoed that theme, calling this a "different kind of war in which failure in one part of the world could lead to disaster here at home."
"It's important for our citizens to understand . . . the consequences of leaving before the job is done," Bush said. If the U.S. does not complete its mission, he said, "radical Islamic extremists would grow in strength."
In her testimony before the Senate committee, Rice said the United States' "most urgent task" was to help the Iraqi government "establish confidence among the Iraqi population that it will and can protect all of its citizens . . . in an even-handed fashion and punish those violent people who are killing innocent Iraqis."
In a passionate defense of the administration's proposed new policy, Rice told the committee that the president and his national security team "really did consider the options before us" before deciding that this was the best course of action to achieve victory in Iraq.
Speaking about the actions of Iran and Syria, which she repeated were destabilizing Iraq and the broader Middle East, Rice said the two states were engaging in "extortion" rather than diplomacy with the United States.
As Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) began addressing Rice, he was interrupted by an unidentified spectator, who shouted, "More lies! Still Lies! Stop the lies! Stop the lies!", before being escorted out of the chamber. Hagel paused briefly, then responded with an effort at humor. "That doesn't count against my time," he quipped, as Rice smiled and other lawmakers chuckled.
The criticism and tough questioning was not limited to Democrats on the committee. Hagel, a Vietnam veteran, said sending more troops to quell what he called an "out-of-control" civil war was both morally and tactically wrong. "This speech given last night by this president represents the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam, if it's carried out," he said.
Biden asked Rice how long she thought American forces would need to stay in Iraq. She responded that she could not give an "exact timetable" because most of the work needed to be done by Iraqi forces and the Iraqi government.
Democratic senators tried unsuccessfully to push Rice to articulate what the consequences will be if the Maliki government once again fails to quell the raging sectarian violence there despite help from more U.S. troops.
"What are the consequences?" Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) asked Rice, "Any circumstances in which we would say we are no longer maintaining combat strength troops in Iraq?"
Rice responded that she didn't want to speculate about what the administration might do if the plan failed.
Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) pushed Rice more, saying "a failed strategy, however repackaged, is still a failed strategy" and decrying that the plan had no benchmarks or timelines. "What will our government do specifically?" he asked Rice.
"It's bad policy to speculate on what you'll do if a plan fails when you're trying to make a plan work," Rice replied. Biden concluded the Senate committee hearing by saying that members' reactions had ranged from "skepticism to intense skepticism to outright opposition to the president's proposal."
He said he didn't want the president to think it was now a "done deal." "We will revisit it," he vowed.
Staff writers Howard Schneider and Debbi Wilgoren contributed to this report.