By Michael Abramowitz and Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, September 12, 2007
Plans by President Bush to announce a withdrawal of up to 30,000 U.S. troops from Iraq by next summer drew sharp criticism yesterday from Democratic leaders and a handful of Republicans in Congress, who vowed to try again to force Bush to accept a more dramatic change of policy.
A second day of testimony by Gen. David H. Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Iraq, and Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker yielded some of the most biting GOP objections since the president announced his troop buildup in January. Several Republicans joined Democrats in saying that Petraeus's proposal to draw down troops through the middle of next summer would result only in force levels equivalent to where they stood before the increase began, about 130,000 troops.
After meeting with Bush yesterday at the White House, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) expressed similar dismay with the Petraeus plan. The general has refused to commit to further reductions until he can assess conditions on the ground next March.
Pelosi said she told Bush that he was essentially endorsing a 10-year "open-ended commitment." Reid said the president wants "no change in mission -- this is more of the same."
White House aides said they are working on a 20-minute prime-time speech that Bush will give tomorrow night, in which he will endorse the main elements of the strategy outlined by Petraeus and Crocker on Capitol Hill this week.
They said the president plans to emphasize that he is in a position to order troop cuts only because of the success achieved on the ground in Iraq, and that he is not being swayed by political opposition. Aides said that he plans to outline once again what he sees as the dire consequences of failure in Iraq and that he will make the troop cuts conditional on continued military gains.
Bush did not tell congressional leaders yesterday exactly what he plans to announce tomorrow night but left the clear impression that "he was going to follow Petraeus's advice," said House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.).
Although some Republicans, such as Rep. James T. Walsh (N.Y.), came out yesterday against Bush's war policy, administration officials and outside lobbyists said they detected little change in the basic politics of Iraq in Congress, where a majority of lawmakers want to bring the war to a faster close but lack the votes to overcome a presidential veto.
But the new criticism from some unexpected quarters in the GOP had leaders in both chambers casting about for new formulas that might attract bipartisan support. Such legislation might include calls to shift the mission in Iraq and begin troop withdrawals -- but without the hard and fast timelines that have previously invited Bush veto threats.
Even Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.), a mainstream conservative who has never publicly strayed from the administration's position on Iraq, made it clear that she would now support "what some have called action-forcing measures."
"The difficulty of the current American and Iraqi situation is rooted in large part in the Bush administration's substantial failure to understand the full implications of our military invasion and the litany of mistakes made at the outset of the war," Dole said.
In a second day of testimony on Capitol Hill, Petraeus and Crocker reprised the generally optimistic points they made to two House committees on Monday. Appearing before the Senate's Foreign Relations and Armed Services panels, Petraeus said the additional troops have helped reduce violence in Iraq, and Crocker said he is hopeful that the Iraqis are beginning to take small steps toward political reconciliation.
The two men, however, were unable to offer the assurances lawmakers sought. Asked by Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) whether the Iraqis could achieve reconciliation by the end of the administration, Crocker said: "I could not put a timeline on it or a target date."
When Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.) asked Petraeus whether the new policy would make the United States safer, he replied: "Sir, I don't know, actually." Later in the hearing, the general sought to amend his answer to yes, telling Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.): "We have very, very clear and very serious national interests in Iraq."
The tone of the questions yesterday was more skeptical and carried a harder edge than what greeted the two men before the House panels on Monday. Several senior Republicans who have already voiced skepticism about the president's Iraq policy raised pointed doubts that a six-month continuation of the "surge" would have much impact on resolving Iraq's fundamental problems -- as did a number of vulnerable GOP incumbents considered swing votes on upcoming Iraq legislation.
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), a member of the Armed Services Committee, said she could not accept having the same number of troops in Iraq in 10 months as there were 10 months ago, as would be the case if Bush adopts Petraeus's recommendation.
"If a troop surge of this size has not prompted the Iraqis to undertake the political reforms that both General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker say are essential to quelling the sectarian violence, then how does continuing the same strategy prompt the Iraqis to take a different direction?" she asked.
Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.), another swing voter, pressed Petraeus and Crocker to offer an assurance that "we are on a path" to political reconciliation. "Americans want to see light at the end of the tunnel," he said.
Petraeus and Crocker responded with equanimity, repeating their mantra that progress is being made, albeit slowly and perhaps not in the manner they had once hoped. Challenged by Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) to explain why continued patience is justified, Petraeus pointed to how the Iraqi government is sharing oil revenue and giving former insurgents conditional amnesty -- both key benchmarks that have not been formally met with the passage of legislation by the Iraqi parliament.
"That's the type of activity that gives me some encouragement," Petraeus said.
Among the questioners were several leading presidential candidates, who used their allotted time to sharpen their messages. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) told Petraeus and Crocker: "We have now set the bar so low that modest improvement in what was a completely chaotic situation, to the point where now we just have the levels of intolerable violence that existed in June of 2006, is considered success. And it's not."
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) told the two men that they had made "extraordinary efforts" in their testimony but that "the reports that you provide to us really require the willing suspension of disbelief."
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), by contrast, said he is "sick at heart" about the mismanagement of the war. But he added: "I believe we cannot choose to lose in Iraq, and I will do everything in my power to see that our commanders in Iraq have the time and support they request to win this war."
Petraeus's embrace of a timeline for troop withdrawals -- no matter how modest -- appears to have shifted the debate on Capitol Hill from whether forces will come home to when and how quickly.
Rep. Phil English (R-Pa.), a moderate who is trying to broker more bipartisanship on Iraq, said that the general is "probably setting more a minimum than a maximum," adding that the numbers "could be substantially more."
Collins said she will double efforts to pass legislation she co-sponsored with Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) that would mandate a change of mission away from combat and toward training Iraqi forces, countering terrorism, guarding borders and protecting U.S. assets. The legislation would not mandate troop withdrawals, but, she said, she has been advised that the remaining goals could be accomplished with 50,000 to 60,000 U.S. troops.
On a separate track, Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) said he has been meeting with Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.) to revise legislation that would have required a timeline for withdrawal. Efforts to take up that language in July received 52 votes, well short of the 60 needed to break a Republican filibuster.
Smith said the new version would turn hard deadlines for withdrawals into nonbinding goals and would shift the emphasis from troop withdrawals to mission changes. The performance of Petraeus and Crocker has probably shored up opposition to firm withdrawal dates, he said. But 120,000 troops in Iraq next summer is not going over well, either.
"We need a transition to a mission post-surge," Smith said.