September Brings No Consensus

Sunday, September 9, 2007

September was supposed to be the decisive month, when either antiwar sentiment pushed Republicans to back Democratic calls for troop withdrawals, or progress in Baghdad won President Bush time to pursue his counterinsurgency strategy. It would all be clearer, lawmakers on both sides of the debate said, when the U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David H. Petraeus, outlined the war's progress to Congress.

But on the eve of the long-anticipated report, the antiwar firebrand, Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.); the reluctant conservative, Rep. Dan Boren (D-Okla.); the mainstream Republican, Sen. Johnny Isakson (Ga.); and the GOP maverick, Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (Maine), cannot even agree on how important Petraeus's testimony will be tomorrow and Tuesday.

To Isakson, all the reports that have preceded Petraeus -- a National Intelligence Estimate, a Government Accountability Office report card and an independent commission's analysis of the Iraqi security forces -- are but supporting acts to the main event.

To Boren, what's most important is what matters to his conservative constituents back home. "It comes down to, he's the commanding general."

To Snowe, the die is cast. Troops are coming home. The mission is changing. All Petraeus can do is influence how fast it happens. "This is obviously the catalyst for change," she said. "The dynamics are changing, without question."

And to Schakowsky, the premise was wrong all along. Petraeus's testimony is just the latest effort by the Bush administration to bamboozle its way to the exits without changing course in Iraq. The week's rhetorical run-up has been "a PR offensive that to me is reminiscent of the lead-up to the war," she said.

Since June, The Washington Post has been following these four lawmakers as they pondered how to weigh in on the war in Iraq. Snowe has broken with her president, becoming one of only three Republicans to support binding timelines for the withdrawal of combat troops. Boren has teetered, voting against Bush's troop buildup and against Democratic timelines but flirting with binding legislation that would force a change of mission in Iraq. Schakowsky and Isakson have only become more resolute -- she in her demands to bring the troops home, he in his certainty that the war can be won.

The four lawmakers found little to agree on in last week's reports from the GAO, which cited a lack of political progress in Iraq on a series of benchmarks Congress ordered it to review, and from the commission led by former generals, which said the Iraqi army has improved but is not ready to take over security from U.S. forces and called Iraq's Interior Ministry "dysfunctional."

Schakowsky saw them as proof of failure. Isakson gleaned them for evidence of success in the war effort. And Snowe, who helped commission the GAO analysis, was furious at the political spin that greeted a report she specifically designed to be objective and unspinnable.

If September was supposed to bring consensus and decision, they were nowhere in sight.

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