Democratic lawmakers charged today that President Bush has failed to set forth a coherent strategy to win the war in Iraq and called for the establishment of measurable benchmarks for progress so that U.S. troops can be gradually withdrawn.
The Democratic criticism came in response to a presidential speech at the U.S. Naval Academy today and the release of a new 35-page White House document entitled, "National Strategy for Victory in Iraq." In the speech, Bush denounced critics who he said want "an artificial timetable" for drawing down the nearly 160,000 U.S. troops now in Iraq. Bush said that "setting an artificial deadline to withdraw" would send a message that America is "weak" and "unreliable," would signal enemies in Iraq to wait out the United States and would "vindicate terrorist tactics of beheading and mass murder."
In a Capitol Hill news conference, Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) and Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) said they were disappointed by Bush's plan, which they said fell short on specifics and ignored basic realities in Iraq.
"The president," Reed said, "failed to answer the question that all Americans are asking: how do we know progress is being made there?"
Kerry accused Bush of resorting to "straw man" arguments in denouncing his critics' calls for a drawdown of U.S. forces.
"This debate is not about an artificial date for withdrawal," Kerry said. He said a Nov. 15 Senate resolution, which called on the administration to hasten an eventual U.S. pullout by turning over more control to Iraqis, did not advocate "an artificial date for withdrawal" but sought to "set an estimated timetable for success which will permit the withdrawal of our troops." The resolution, which passed 79 to 19, said 2006 should be "a period of significant transition to full Iraqi sovereignty," creating conditions for "the phased redeployment of United States forces from Iraq."
"No one has ever suggested or believes that we should run in the face of car bombers or assassins," Kerry said, referring to a passage in Bush's speech. "No one is talking about running in the face of a challenge. We're talking about how to win, how to succeed, how do you best achieve our goals? That's the choice here. And what the president did not do today again is acknowledge the fundamental reality of the insurgency."
Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) called the resolution two weeks ago "a vote of no confidence in the president's current policy in Iraq" and said Bush in response today merely "recycled his tired rhetoric of 'stay the course.'"
In a statement, Reid said, "After nearly 1,000 days of war in Iraq, our troops, their families, and the American people deserve more than just a Bush-Cheney public relations campaign. They deserve a clear strategy with military, economic and political measures to be met in order to successfully complete our mission. The president's continued refusal to provide that plan does nothing to support our troops or their families. Simply staying the course is no longer an option, we must change the course."
The top Democrat in the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi of California, today threw her support behind a proposal by Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.) for a prompt pullout of U.S. troops from Iraq. Murtha, a former Marine with a reputation as a hawk on military issues, stunned Washington two weeks ago when he said U.S. troops have done all they can in Iraq and should be withdrawn within six months.
"We should follow the lead of Congressman John Murtha, who has put forth a plan to make America safer, to make our military stronger, and to make Iraq more stable," Pelosi said in a news conference.
She also sharply criticized Bush's speech, dismissing the "Plan for Victory" slogan that appeared behind him today as "no more accurate than the 'Mission Accomplished' backdrop he used two and a half years ago on the USS Abraham Lincoln."
"What we heard today was a commitment to the status quo -- a status quo that is not working," Pelosi said. "The President did not have a plan for victory when he went into his war of choice in Iraq, and he did not have a plan for victory today. The American people expected that the president would do more today than just put a new cover and 35 pages of rhetoric on old sound bites."
Bush "fails to understand that a new course is needed in Iraq" and instead has "dug us into a deep hole," she said. "It is time for him to stop digging."
But Sen. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.) called the speech "a step in the right direction" that "begins to address the Senate's call for a successful exit strategy with measurable benchmarks." He said, "I look forward to hearing more, including information about the specific benchmarks we expect to achieve, and when we expect to achieve them."
Republican lawmakers voiced strong support for the speech and strategy document.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) said, "I hope the partisan claims that our military does not have a plan in Iraq will cease. We are making significant progress training Iraqi security forces which will allow American forces to return home. However, we must not prematurely leave Iraq, which would be a disaster for Iraq and for our security."
Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Tex.) said, "The only exit strategy for Iraq is victory, and we will not leave the Iraqis defenseless until they have the full capacity to protect themselves."
In his news conference, Kerry said Bush is ignoring advice from Iraqi leaders and his own generals, including the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. George W. Casey Jr., who said in recent congressional testimony that the large U.S. military presence in Iraq is helping to fuel the insurgency.
"General Casey has said very clearly that it is the large presence of American forces on the ground that feeds the insurgency and makes it more difficult for the Iraqis to assume responsibility because they don't have to," Kerry told reporters. "The president did not acknowledge that today, but gave us the same talk about simply staying as long as it takes to get them [Iraqi forces] to stand up." He cited a poll showing that 45 percent of Iraqis "believe it is all right to injure and kill Americans" and that 80 percent "want us to withdraw."
Kerry added, "So what the president did not acknowledge today at all is that the presence of our troops itself is a part of the current reality on the ground that presents food for the insurgency. And you need to reduce that presence over a period of time in order to be able to succeed, not fail." He said no senator wants the United States to "leave a failed state or to withdraw precipitously," but that "in the end, the strategy for exit is in fact part of the strategy for success."
Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he agreed with Bush that the United States should not set a firm timetable for withdrawal, but he expressed support for "measurable goals" -- such as levels of Iraqi troops capable of operating independently -- that would provide the benchmarks for a staged U.S. drawdown.
"I believe we can only draw down when we have a plan in place that tells us we're getting to our stated objective," Nelson said on CNN. "I think we all want to stay the course," he said. "What we want to know is what the course is and what it's going to take in terms of preparation."
Sen. Russell D. Feingold (D-Wis.) condemned Bush's plan as "filled with the same rhetoric we've all heard before." Noting that the strategy document says it "articulates the broad strategy the President set forth in 2003," Feingold said, "That alone makes it clear that the president seems more dug in than ever to the same old 'stay the course' way of thinking. This is not a strategy, and it certainly is not a plan to complete the military mission in Iraq."
Feingold said in a statement, "We need leadership, and we need a policy on Iraq that includes a flexible timetable for completing our military mission there, so that we can focus on our national security priority -- defeating the global terrorist networks that threaten the U.S. The president missed a vital opportunity today."
Feingold has introduced a resolution calling on the administration to provide what he calls a "flexible, public timetable" for the U.S. mission in Iraq, with Dec. 31, 2006, set as a "target date to complete the military mission there."