Quick End to War 'Not Realistic,' Durbin Cautions

By Shailagh Murray and Chris Cillizza
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, July 10, 2007; 2:54 PM

Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin said today that despite growing Republican discontent with the Iraq war, convincing GOP members to support withdrawal legislation remains a daunting challenge that so far has netted few results.

Durbin said recent speeches by senior Senate Republicans signaling a sharp break with Bush's Iraq war strategy might not necessarily translate into votes for Democratic measures setting target dates for withdrawing U.S. troops. Durbin also conceded that the Democrats, with a bare majority in the Senate, won't be able to placate liberal Democratic calls for a specific end date, including a funding cut off.

"Obviously there are folks who want the war to end today, and all the troops to be home tomorrow. And even though I think that is a worthy goal, it is not a realistic goal," said Durbin. A major redeployment of troops will have to be done gradually and in a responsible manner, he noted. "We also understand that just leaving cold turkey, with everything gone, could have the whole region descend into chaos," Durbin said.

The Illinois Democrat, who holds the Senate's No. 2 leadership post, made the remarks during an interview on PostTalk, a regular washingtonpost.com interview program with newsmakers.

Durbin, an early booster of Sen. Barack Obama's presidential campaign, singled out former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) for helping to fuel unrealistic anti-war expectations for congressional action. Edwards has chastized his fellow Democratic candidates who are currently serving in the Senate, for not pushing hard enough to end the war.

"I recall when John voted for this war. So it's understandable that he feels badly about that decision and wants to see something done to undo the harm that has happened," said Durbin. "But it has to be done in a sensible way."

Asked to characterize the mood of Republican Senators on the war, Durbin recalled the dramatic speech two weeks ago by Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) The senior GOP member of the Foreign Relations Committee walked unannounced onto the Senate one evening, to call for an immediate change of course.

"I thought, Dick Lugar's position and mine are not different," said Durbin. Lugar's remarks were followed by similar declarations from Sens. George Voinovich (Ohio) and Pete V. Domenici (N.M.). "I can tell they've really lost patience with this administration and it policy in Iraq," Durbin said.

But as the Senate launches two weeks of debate over the war, Durbin said, it remains unclear whether Republican doubts will convert into votes for withdrawal measures. So far, Lugar, Voinovich and Domenici are resisting efforts to set specific dates for removing troops, as are most other GOP skeptics. "How will we see that when it comes to this debate now? That's the real question," Durbin said.

On the Democratic side, Durbin acknowledged a different source of tension: the difficulties of explaining to his party's liberal base why American troops are not yet out of Iraq. He said many Democratic voters assumed that in the months following the 2006 election, the new Democratic Congress would legislate a troop withdrawal -- despite the fact that Democrats control the Senate by a mere one-vote margin.

In reality, said Durbin, Senate Democrats are the minority party on Iraq, because one of their members, Sen. Tim Johnson of South Dakota, has been absent for months while he recovers from a stroke, and Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, an independent who is a member of the Democratic caucus, is a strong war supporter.

"It's so hard, and I didn't really appreciate that when we won the majority last November," said Durbin. "People thought, okay you won the majority on Tuesday, I guess by Wednesday the war's over. I only wish we had that power."

An early agitator for a presidential candidacy by his homestate colleague Obama, Durbin pronounced himself pleased with the progress the freshman senator has made in the first months of the campaign.

"He's done things that no one's ever expected. To have 250,000 contributors at this moment? No one's even close. It's an indication of grass roots support that any presidential candidate would die for," said Durbin.

Durbin compared Obama to President John F. Kennedy, as a person capable of inspiring a new generation of Democratic leadership. "I think Barack Obama represents something historic," said Durbin.

He noted Obama's advantage in being a consistent war critic, as Durbin himself has been, having opposed the war in Iraq from its start. He drew an implicit contrast with both Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Edwards, both of whom supported the 2002 use of force resolution.

Obama, in Iowa this morning, also sought to differentiate himself from the other first tier candidates on the war. "I believed then and still do that being a leader means that you'd better do what's right and leave the politics aside, because there are no do-overs on an issue as important as war," he said.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company