Report on Iraq Exposes a Divide Within the G.O.P.
WASHINGTON, Dec. 9 — The release of the report by the bipartisan Iraq Study Group this week exposed deep fissures among Republicans over how to manage a war that many fear will haunt their party — and the nation — for years to come.
A document that many in Washington had hoped would pave the way for a bipartisan compromise on Iraq instead drew sharp condemnation from the right, with hawks saying it was a wasted effort that advocated a shameful American retreat.
The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page described the report as a “strategic muddle,” Richard Perle called it “absurd,” Rush Limbaugh labeled it “stupid,” and The New York Post portrayed the leaders of the group, former Secretary of State James A. Baker III and Lee H. Hamilton, a former Democratic member of Congress, as “surrender monkeys.”
Republican moderates clung to the report, mindful of the drubbing the party received in last month’s midterm elections largely because of Iraq. They said they hoped President Bush would adopt the group’s principal recommendations and begin the process of disengagement from the long and costly war. But White House officials who conducted a preliminary review of the report said they had concluded that many of the proposals were impractical or unrealistic.
The divisions could make it more difficult for Republicans to coalesce on national security policy and avoid a bitter intraparty fight going into the 2008 campaign.
Senator John McCain of Arizona, a leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, rejected the major recommendations of the group because they did not present a formula for victory. Mr. McCain, hoping to claim the Republican mantle on national security issues, has staked out a muscular position on Iraq, calling for an immediate increase in American forces to try to bring order to Baghdad and crush the insurgency.
It is too early to say how the war will figure in Republican primary battles, as other potential candidates are still developing their positions and conditions on the ground in Iraq may change. Mr. McCain’s chief early rival, Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, has been in Asia all week and has not yet read the report, an aide said.
But the debate will go to the heart of the party’s identity — and its image as the party of strength on national security — after Mr. Bush’s aggressive post-Sept. 11 foreign policy brought electoral successes in 2002 and 2004 but was profoundly challenged by voters this year.
Mr. Bush has not yet tipped his hand on what course he intends to pursue, saying he will await parallel reviews of Iraq policy from the National Security Council, the State Department and the Pentagon before deciding on any major changes. But he has already signaled that he intends to make some adjustments, most notably by dismissing Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld immediately after the midterm elections.
Mr. Bush’s choices will not only have profound effects on the conduct of the war, but will also resonate within his party and give shape to the foreign policy debate of the 2008 elections. Republicans are already engaged in soul-searching over the results of the recent election, trying to figure out how the party can regain the faith of the American people on questions of war and peace.
The ambivalence and introspection were summed up by Senator Gordon H. Smith of Oregon, who spoke at length in the Senate this week about the dangers of withdrawing from Iraq but said he could no longer support the status quo.
“I, for one, am at the end of my rope when it comes to supporting a policy that has our soldiers patrolling the same streets in the same way, being blown up by the same bombs day after day,” Mr. Smith said. “That is absurd. It may even be criminal. I cannot support that anymore. I believe we need to figure out how to fight the war on terror and to do it right. So either we clear and hold and build, or let’s go home.”
The frustration was widespread among Congressional Republicans, some of whom were serving their final days in office this week after an election largely influenced by the public’s unhappiness with the war.
“So what do we have?” asked Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, the third-ranking Republican in the Senate, who supported the war, defended it throughout his re-election campaign and was defeated last month. “We have the Baker-Hamilton report, which is a prescription for surrender. It is just a matter of time.”
But Mr. Bush is also facing a rising chorus of demands from moderates in his party, as well as from Democrats, for a plan to begin a withdrawal from Iraq. They see in the report a politically palatable way to achieve disengagement from Iraq and an end to the partisan warfare in Washington.
“To ignore the message sent in the last election is to do so at our political peril, because the message was a resounding repudiation of the status quo with respect to Iraq,” said Senator Olympia J. Snowe, the moderate Republican from Maine. “The American people are essentially unified in their intense dissatisfaction with the way things have progressed in Iraq.”
Bill Kristol, the neoconservative editor of The Weekly Standard and a leading advocate of the decision to invade Iraq, said: “In the real world, the Baker report is now the vehicle for those Republicans who want to extricate themselves from Iraq, while McCain is articulating the strategy for victory in Iraq. Bush will have to choose, and the Republican Party will have to choose, in the very near future between Baker and McCain.”
The choice Mr. Kristol is describing reflects a longstanding Republican schism over policy and culture between ideological neoconservatives and so-called realists. Through most of the Bush administration, the neoconservatives’ idea of using American military power to advance democracy around the world prevailed, pushed along by Vice President Dick Cheney and Mr. Rumsfeld.
But as the Iraq war spiraled downward, the realists began to speak out more forcefully. They were also heavily represented on the Iraq Study Group, including Mr. Baker, former Secretary of State Lawrence S. Eagleburger and Robert M. Gates, who stepped down from the panel last month when Mr. Bush named him to succeed Mr. Rumsfeld. All three served in the administration of Mr. Bush’s father.
The Wall Street Journal editorial page, one barometer of conservative thought, called the Baker-Hamilton group report “a bipartisan strategic muddle ginned up for domestic political purposes.” It welcomed the panel’s plan to increase the number of American trainers embedded with Iraqi military units, but scoffed at the group’s urging to involve Iran and Syria in talks to address problems in Iraq.
Mr. Perle, a prominent neoconservative and early advocate of invading Iraq, dismissed the panel as a “misadventure” that should be ignored.
“You don’t outsource the responsibilities of the commander in chief,” Mr. Perle said. “The whole thing is absurd.”
Mr. Limbaugh, who commands a large conservative audience on talk radio, said the commission was peopled with out-of-touch weaklings who placed a higher value on bipartisan comity than on winning the war.
“You know, bipartisanship simply means Republicans cave on their core principles and agree with Democrats,” Mr. Limbaugh said on his program this week. “That’s why everybody is praising the stupid report. Because there’s nothing in this about winning, there’s nothing in this about victory. There isn’t anything in this about moving forward in a positive way. This is cut and run, surrender without the words.”
Representative Duncan Hunter, a California Republican who is the departing chairman of the House Armed Services Committee and a 2008 presidential hopeful, said, “The policy-making decisions about Iraq should not be considered to be devolving to a nonelected group put together essentially for the purpose of advising the president.”
Democrats, meanwhile, face divisions of their own, aware that they face high expectations from voters after running campaigns that promised change in Iraq.
Many leaders in the party indicated this week that they felt vindicated by the study group’s findings, and they vowed to push ahead with their promise of aggressive oversight hearings on the management of the war when they take control of Congress in January.
But the party’s liberal base is hungry for more forceful action, including voting against additional financing for the war. “It’s difficult to talk about ending the war without showing you’re willing to end the money,” said Representative Maxine Waters, a California Democrat and leader of the antiwar caucus in the House.
Democratic leaders have opposed cutting off the money, although Speaker-elect Nancy Pelosi said this week that Democrats would impose new standards and conditions in Iraq spending bills.
Representative Christopher Shays, the Connecticut Republican who survived a Democratic electoral sweep across New England last month, said, “I don’t think there’s a real consensus in Congress in general” on Iraq. But he added, “Having been to Iraq 15 times, staying the course would just be foolish.”
No matter what positions they take today, all Republicans would prefer that the 2008 elections not be fought on the battleground of Iraq, said Douglas Foyle, professor of government at Wesleyan University.
“They don’t want the 2008 presidential and Congressional campaign to be about staying the course,” Professor Foyle said. “That’s where the calculus of Bush and the Republicans diverge very quickly. Everyone is thinking about the next election, and Bush doesn’t have one.”