Bush counters Republican dissent on Iraq policy
WASHINGTON: Fearful of a Republican rebellion over Iraq that his own aides believe could force him to change course, President George W. Bush said Tuesday that the United States would be able to pull back troops "in a while," but asked Congress to wait until September to pass judgment on a future military presence there.
Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, fresh from a trip to Iraq, joined in the call for patience, imploring lawmakers not to "let fatigue dictate our policies." As the Senate began a two-week debate over a major military spending bill, the White House dispatched cabinet officials and advisers to urge other Republicans to stand by the president.
The administration's message was spelled out in remarks Bush delivered in Ohio, in which the president signaled more clearly than before that he might be open to shifting toward a smaller, more limited mission in Iraq in the future — without stating precisely when.
"I'll be glad to discuss different options," Bush said to a business group in Cleveland. "I believe we can be in a different position in a while, and that would be to have enough troops there to guard the territorial integrity of that country, enough troops there to make sure that Al Qaeda doesn't gain safe haven."
While skepticism and pessimism about Iraq policy are evident in the voices of a growing number of lawmakers, including several prominent Republicans, even more Republicans spoke forcefully about their desire to continue the fight. It remains an open question whether a series of proposals, including those calling for troop withdrawal deadlines, will gain the 60 votes needed for initial passage in the Senate when the measures are scheduled to be considered next week.
As the debate began Tuesday, Bush's national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, and his new Iraq coordinator, Lieutenant General Douglas Lute, arrived on Capitol Hill to lobby senators, while Defense Secretary Robert Gates fielded phone calls from lawmakers in both parties. The officials were, effectively, previewing a progress report to be delivered to Congress by week's end.
Senator Olympia J. Snowe, a Maine Republican, said she received a call on Tuesday morning from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, urging her to wait until September to denounce the Bush policy. Snowe, who has previously opposed hard-and-fast deadlines for removing troops, said the time had come to change course in Iraq.
"The tide has turned," Snowe said. "They obviously would prefer that we wait until September, but my view is that we should send a very strong message now."
Among the proposals to be considered over the next two weeks is a plan requiring a troop withdrawal to begin within 120 days and to be completed by the end of April 2008. The sponsors of the plan, Senators Carl Levin of Michigan and Jack Reed of Rhode Island, both Democrats, said the legislation would allow troops to remain in Iraq for a limited mission of combating terrorism, training Iraqi forces and protecting American forces.
While debate over the Iraq war has dominated the first six months of the new Congress, Democrats have struggled to use their narrow majority to influence the administration's policy. But Bush's own words on Tuesday signaled the beginning of a White House counteroffensive aimed at emphasizing that, like Americans around the country, he, too, wants to bring troops home.
"I fully understand that when you watch the violence on TV every night, people are saying, 'Is it worth it, can we accomplish an objective?' " Bush said. "Well, first I want to tell you, yes, we can accomplish this fight and win in Iraq. And secondly, I want to tell you, we must, for the sake of our children and grandchildren." While Bush hinted in his remarks that he was open to exploring different options in the future, he did not expound on them in any significant detail, only broadly mentioning border protection and counterterrorism. He did not mention either providing security in Baghdad or training Iraqi troops, both of which remain central to the current American mission.
In a White House memorandum circulated on Capitol Hill and beyond, the administration said it was "too early to declare the surge a success or failure," but highlighted what it called signs of progress, including "a substantial drop in sectarian murders in Baghdad since January," "total car bombings and suicide attacks down in May and June" and "signs of normalcy in Baghdad like professional soccer leagues, amusement parks and vibrant markets."
Even as several members of Congress said Tuesday that they were awaiting a progress report on Iraq this week before rendering their judgment, administration officials sought to play down the review of the benchmarks of progress in Iraq.
The document, required by congressional budget legislation, is based on reports from senior commanders and diplomats in Iraq, and is being written in Washington by the National Security Council staff with participation from other departments, including State and Defense.
"This week started to take on greater importance than anyone in the administration had intended," said one senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. "September is our window."
The Republican senators who believe September is too late for a new strategy began huddling privately on Tuesday to begin discussing compromise legislation to change course in Iraq. Senators Richard Lugar of Indiana and Senator John Warner of Virginia are among those who are shaping such proposals.
At the same time, a string of Republicans stepped forward and voiced support for the president, while Democratic leaders accused Republicans of using procedural maneuvering to delay votes on the Iraq legislation.
Senator Christopher Bond, Republican of Missouri, said the critics were being hasty. "Do we not have the patience to see a totally new strategy, which is appearing to work, given a chance?" he asked.
But Senator Lamar Alexander, a Tennessee Republican, said the two-week congressional debate needed to produce some signs of progress. He and Senator Ken Salazar, a Colorado Democrat, are proposing a bipartisan plan to put into law the provisions of last year's Iraq Study Group report, which called for a gradual troop withdrawal and change of direction in the mission.
"At some point we're going to have to stop shouting at each other and see what we can agree on," Alexander said. "We owe that to our troops and we owe that to our country."