The newly energized debate over the war in Iraq continued unabated today, as Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.) repeated his call for a withdrawal of troops while Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld warned that words "have effects" on both U.S. troops and the enemy.
President Bush, meanwhile, declined to repeat disparaging comments about Murtha made last week by his press secretary, who ridiculed the decorated veteran by comparing him to controversial filmmaker Michael Moore.
Speaking in China, Bush said he understood "that the decision to call for an immediate withdrawal of our troops by Congressman Murtha was done in a careful and thoughtful way. I disagree with his position."
"Congressman Murtha is a fine man," Bush said, "a good man who served our country with honor and distinction as a Marine in Vietnam and as a U.S. congressman."
Bush largely left the administration's rebuttal to Rumsfeld, who appeared in successive interviews on the network's Sunday talk shows.
"We live in a free country and it's proper for people to raise questions and to have views," Rumsfeld said on the Fox News Sunday program. "And he [Murtha] does, and that's fair enough." But, he said, "his views were not broadly supported in the House or the Senate either by Democrats or Republicans."
And, he added, "we also have to understand that our words have effects. And put yourself in the shoes of a soldier who thinks that we're going to pull out precipitously or immediately, as some people have proposed.
"Obviously, they have to wonder whether what they're doing makes sense if that's the idea, if that's the debate," Rumsfeld said. "Put yourselves in the shoes of the Iraqi people who've put a great deal at risk to run for office, and support the elections, and support the constitution, and subject themselves to risk of assassination.
"Put yourself in the shoes of the enemy. The enemy hears a big debate in the United States, and they have to wonder maybe all we have to do is wait and we'll win. We can't win militarily. They know that. The battle is here in the United States."
Rumsfeld made no committments for a significant withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq next year, sticking to the Pentagon's long-held assertion that field commanders will determine when to begin a military drawdown.
Citing the Dec. 15 elections in Iraq, Rumsfeld said troop levels would remain near 160,000. Depending upon conditions, troops then would return to pre-election levels of 138,000 as planned, he said.
Murtha, speaking on NBC's Meet the Press, declined to repeat his comments chiding Bush and Vice President Cheney for not serving in combat and said he wanted to depersonalize the debate.
"It's not me," he said. "It's the public looking for an answer to this thing. They want us to solve this problem. They don't want a war of words."
The war in Iraq, he said, was "obviously" a mistake. "All of us were misled by the information that we had," he said.
" . . . We have increased terrorism in the Middle East," he said, "and since we're the target, we've increased instability in the Middle East. So the only way to do this is to redeploy our forces inside and let the Iraqis handle this themselves."
Asked if he thought the administration had misled the public, Murtha responded: "I wouldn't say that. I don't think that any president would mislead the public on the intelligence. They certainly exaggerated, but I don't think that they misled us."
Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) appearing on Face the Nation, said that rather than a lot of "caterwauling, like people coming out of a baseball dugout," the country was in need of some real answers.
"We've had votes this week in which we're not going to leave. Both the Senate and the House decided that was not appropriate, Democrats and Republicans. But the point is, even as we stay, there's going to be great anxiety unless we know how we're going to succeed," Lugar said.