Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. added his voice to the growing chorus of Democratic critics of the Bush administration's Iraq policy, but he rejected calls for a timetable for withdrawal of U.S. troops.
The Delaware senator's luncheon remarks at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York came on the heels of an address by Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.) last week in which he advocated an immediate drawdown of U.S. forces in Iraq.
Biden and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.), both of whom are mentioned as potential candidates for the party's 2008 presidential nomination, praised Murtha yesterday even as they disagreed with the specifics of his proposal. Biden said he shared the "frustration" voiced by Murtha and others but was "not there yet" on Murtha's policy prescriptions. Clinton predicted that a hasty withdrawal would "cause more problems for us in America."
Biden, who is perhaps the Democratic Party's most visible spokesman on foreign policy matters, said that President Bush "has to abandon his grandiose goals" for transforming Iraq and the Middle East and define a more realistic mission.
Rather than attempting to transform Iraq into a "model democracy," Biden suggested that Bush spend the next six months accomplishing three goals: creating a "political settlement" that draws support from the rival Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds who make up Iraq; bolstering the ability of the Iraqi government to "deliver basic services"; and accelerating the training of Iraqi troops in order to facilitate a handover of full military authority to them.
Should Bush follow that blueprint, Biden held out hope that "we can start climbing out of the hole he has dug with most of our interest intact."
On the question of troop withdrawal, which is rapidly becoming a litmus test for aspiring national politicians among the Democratic Party's liberal wing, Biden sought a middle ground.
Once an advocate for increased troop levels, Biden said he no longer supports that idea but maintained that "the hard truth is that our large military presence in Iraq is necessary." A quick withdrawal or a must-meet deadline "divorced from progress . . . would doom us," he added.
Biden also said, however, that he expected 50,000 troops to be redeployed from Iraq by the end of 2006 with the remaining 100,000 out of the country by January 2007. A force of 20,000 to 40,000 would remain in the country to continue to train Iraqi forces and "prevent jihadists from establishing a permanent base in Iraq."
Clinton, like Biden, is trying to find a way to balance criticism of the Bush administration's Iraq policy with an unwillingness to call for a full-scale troop withdrawal.
"Until they vote for a government, I don't know that we will have adequate information about how prepared they are," Clinton said yesterday.
Several other Democrats weighing presidential bids, including Sens. Russell Feingold (Wis.) and John F. Kerry (Mass.), have proposed a pullout beginning after next month's parliamentary elections. Former senator John Edwards (N.C.) recently declared that he had made a mistake by supporting the use-of-force resolution against Iraq in 2002.