By Peter Baker and Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, April 11, 2008
President Bush ordered an indefinite suspension yesterday of troop withdrawals from Iraq this summer but promised that the war "is not endless" as he braced for a new election-year showdown with Congress over the conflict's economic cost and long-term future.
With Bush effectively freezing troop levels at 140,000 in August, Congress moved to challenge him on two fronts. Democratic leaders prepared to amend war-funding legislation to limit his options and to direct money to domestic priorities, while lawmakers from both parties took on his plan to sign a strategic agreement with Iraq that would outlast his presidency.
The decision to accept Army Gen. David H. Petraeus's plan to halt withdrawals after the extra combat brigades that were sent last year depart in July means that Bush probably will bequeath his successor a force about as large as it has been for most of the past five years. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said he has given up hope of scaling back to 100,000 troops in Iraq by the end of 2008, and Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker indicated that he expects the war to last several more years.
"I've told him he'll have all the time he needs," Bush said of Petraeus after having breakfast with his Iraq commander and his Iraq ambassador at the White House. "Some have suggested that this period of evaluation will be a pause. That's misleading because none of our operations in Iraq will be on hold. Instead, we will use the months ahead to take advantage of the opportunities created by the surge."
Although he suspended troop withdrawals, Bush tried to assure the nation that they might resume. "While this war is difficult, it is not endless," he said in a midday speech in the main hall of the White House, where he also announced that he will cut future Army combat tours in Iraq from 15 months to 12 months. "And we expect that, as conditions on the ground continue to improve, they will permit us to continue the policy of return on success."
The decision drew instant criticism from Capitol Hill and the campaign trail. The two Democrats vying to take over as commander in chief condemned the president for potentially leaving behind a mess. "There is no end in sight under the Bush policy," Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) told a crowd in Gary, Ind. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) asked, "What is the endgame in Iraq?" and said that Bush needs to tell the country.
That was a question confronting the administration at every turn yesterday. At a Senate hearing, Gates was asked about his ambition articulated last year to bring U.S. forces down to 100,000 by the end of 2008. Asked whether he still thinks that could happen, Gates said, "No, sir."
During lunch with Washington Post editors and reporters, Crocker agreed that the history of insurgencies suggests that the war will last several more years. "Yeah, I think this is going to be an extended process," he said. "I can't put numbers of years on it. But I don't think that necessarily means we're going to have to play the same roles at the same levels."
At Bush's direction, Crocker and Petraeus plan to stop in Saudi Arabia before returning to Iraq as part of an effort to urge Arab states to help Iraq more. Vice President Cheney recently visited Riyadh, and Bush plans to go there next month for his second visit this year. "The message is going to be . . . that this is time, more than time, for key Arab states to step forward and engage constructively with Iraq," Crocker said. "Get embassies open. Get ambassadors on the ground. Consider visits. Implement debt relief."
As the administration is trying to map out an endgame, so, too, are Democrats who have been unable to effect meaningful change in U.S. war policy since they took over Congress 15 months ago. Democrats have found repeatedly that they do not have enough votes to force their will on Bush on troop levels, so lawmakers are searching for new avenues to take on the president in the seven months before the election.
One confrontation centers on Bush's effort to negotiate a long-term "strategic framework" agreement with Iraq this summer without congressional approval. The U.N. mandate that provides a legal basis for foreign troops operating in Iraq is set to expire at the end of the year, and the administration wants the framework and a related "status of forces" agreement to govern the U.S. engagement in the new year.
But lawmakers from both parties said Bush is trying to dictate war policy after he leaves office, and they maintained that an agreement with such enormous consequences should be submitted to the Senate for ratification as a treaty. At a rancorous Senate hearing, Republicans warned that they would join Democrats in fighting the pact.
"You are not going to get this done between now and the election," Sen. George V. Voinovich (R-Ohio) told David Satterfield, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's chief adviser on Iraq. "It's not going to happen. . . . Look at reality." If the administration presses ahead, Voinovich and others said, it would hand Democrats a presidential campaign issue on a platter, allowing them to claim that Bush seeks to tie the hands of the next president.
"You speak on behalf of this administration, whose views are not shared by two of the three potential next presidents," said Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. "This is folly. This is a serious, serious mistake."
Satterfield insisted that the framework pact would not commit the United States to permanent bases or specific troop levels, or even to defend Iraq. But the administration has only vaguely outlined what the commitment would be.
A statement signed by Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in December said the agreement would provide "security assurances and commitments" to Iraq "to deter foreign aggression against Iraq that violates its sovereignty and integrity of its territories, waters, or airspace."
Satterfield's assurance that that language does not constitute a "binding guarantee" on the United States' part was ridiculed on both sides of the aisle. "Words have meaning," said Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.). "It raises real flags for all of us."
Republicans were less insistent on ratification but demanded congressional involvement. Sen. Norm Coleman (Minn.) said there should be "a very clear understanding that we're not going to go forward with a security arrangement unless and until there is a full buy-in from this body. Doesn't have to be a formal treaty, but I just think there has to be that recognition. Otherwise, we're going to proceed down a very bitter, partisan, political divide."
Satterfield emerged from the hearing sobered by the bipartisan criticism. "It was very difficult to discern the difference" between Republicans and Democrats, he acknowledged. He jokingly summarized lawmakers' views this way: "Other than the fact that it violates the Constitution, statute law, common sense and the overwhelming judgment of the American people, this is a sensible thing to do."
With violence levels in Iraq down since last year, Democrats are increasingly making an economic case against the war, blaming it in part for the downturn at home. Democratic leaders plan to add as much as $30 billion for road and bridge construction, unemployment benefits and other domestic spending to the $108 billion war-funding measure Bush has requested.
Speaking after the president's speech, Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said Americans are paying $5,000 per second for the war, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Iraq should use its own money for reconstruction. "The president has taken us into a failed war," she said. "He's taken us deeply into debt. And . . . that debt is taking us into recession."
In his speech, Bush took the economic arguments head-on, noting that U.S. spending on large-scale reconstruction is nearing zero as Iraqis take on more expenses. He argued that U.S. military spending amounts to just over 4 percent of the nation's economy, less than it was during the Cold War. "And it pales when compared to the cost of another terrorist attack on our people," he said. "We should be able to agree that this is a burden worth bearing."
The president vowed to veto any war-funding bill that exceeds $108 billion or includes restrictions on his authority, saying Congress should pass his version as "a strong show of support for our troops."