In a major new blow to President George W. Bush’s determination to "stay the course" in Iraq, an influential Democratic hawk with close ties to the uniformed military has called for Washington to begin withdrawing U.S. troops immediately.
In an emotional press conference Thursday morning, Rep. John Murtha, a former officer in the Marines and the ranking Democrat on the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee of the House of Representatives, announced he will soon introduce legislation requiring US ground troops to be "redeploy(ed)" out of Iraq and to send a "quick-reaction" force into the region for possible use against "terrorist" camps in their place.
"The war in Iraq is not going as advertised," he said. "It is a flawed policy wrapped in an illusion… It is evident that continued military action in Iraq is not in the best interest of the United States of America, the Iraqi people, or the Persian Gulf region."
As a longtime Democratic hawk and staunch supporter of the uniformed military, Murtha, who originally supported the Iraq war, will make it much easier for fellow Democrats and some Republicans to challenge the Bush administration’s continuing calls to "stay the course" in Iraq.
Even before his statement, Republican lawmakers were voicing growing fears that Iraq threatened their hold on both houses of Congress in next November’s mid-term Congressional elections. In a major setback to Bush and an indication of his party’s rising anxiety, a majority of Republicans voted Tuesday to require the administration to submit detailed reports about progress toward withdrawing US troops over the next year and replacing them with Iraqi forces.
The New York Times called the resolution "a vote of no confidence on the war in Iraq," while its sponsor, Senate Armed Forces Committee chairman John Warner himself described his amendment as a blunt warning to Iraqis that Washington had "done (its) part" and was fast running out of patience.
Democrats, who until recently had been deeply divided about what to do in Iraq, have increasingly taken the political offensive over growing public sentiment (57 percent, according to one poll last week) that the administration manipulated the intelligence in order to rally the country to war, a charge that Murtha endorsed Thursday.
Led by Bush, the administration has tried to mount a counteroffensive by calling Democratic charges that it deliberately misled the country into war "irresponsible" and deeply damaging to the morale of the some 150,000 troops currently in Iraq.
But its efforts so far have appeared largely ineffective in changing public opinion, in part because last month’s indictment in connection with the "outing" of a covert Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) officer on perjury charges of Vice President Dick Cheney’s former chief of staff has added weight to charges that intelligence was indeed manipulated.
Added to this are the widely publicized claims by former Secretary of State Colin Powell’s chief of staff, ret. Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, that Cheney and Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld led a "cabal" that circumvented normal bureaucratic and intelligence channels in order to take the country to war.
Nor did it help that a prominent moderate Republican and likely 2008 presidential candidate, Sen. Chuck Hagel, criticized the White House’s counteroffensive for "dividing the country." In a particularly damaging comment in a major policy address this week, Hagel, a decorated Vietnam veteran who has voiced alarm over developments in Iraq over the past two years, noted that Congress should have spoken out earlier during the Vietnam War.
While the administration has appeared flummoxed and on the defensive over the charges that it manipulated intelligence before the war, Democrats have appeared increasingly unified behind proposals to begin withdrawing troops from Iraq after the Dec. 15 elections there according to a timetable that would see most of them leave by the end of next year.
In the last two weeks, both Sen. John Kerry and his 2004 vice-presidential running-mate, former Sen. John Edwards, have publicly admitted that they now regret their votes in October 2002 to give Bush the authority to go to war, and offered support for legislation that would at least establish benchmarks for withdrawing troops.
In yet another important step in the Democrats’ evolution, former President Bill Clinton declared for the first time this week that the decision to go to war in Iraq was "wrong," thus presumably preparing the ground for other Democrats, particularly his Senator-wife, Hillary, who has until now opposed withdrawal, to move in a new direction.
It is in this context that Murtha’s remarks will add to the momentum in favor of withdrawal. Indeed, Murtha has historically been so close to the military that many political observers will conclude that he is speaking for senior officers who have grown increasingly convinced that the war has been a major strategic mistake.
(A survey of military leaders released Thursday by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found they were roughly evenly split on the wisdom of going to war in the first place and on whether or not the Iraq war was helpful in the larger "war on terrorism.")
Warning that the "future of our military is at risk," Murtha said that he had concluded after numerous trips to Iraq that "our troops have become the primary target of the insurgency" and that "we have become a catalyst for violence."
"I believe we need to turn Iraq over to the Iraqis," he said. "I believe that before the Iraqi elections, the Iraqi people and the emerging government must be put on notice that the United States will immediately redeploy."
That redeployment, which partly echoes a more comprehensive plan put forward by the Center for American Progress (CAP), a think tank consisting mainly of former senior Clinton administration officials, in late September, calls for creating a quick-reaction force to be deployed in the region for intervention against "terrorist camps."
It also seeks an over-the-horizon Marine presence that could be deployed quickly, presumably to prevent incursions by foreign forces into Iraq in the event of a widening civil conflict. Murtha also called for intensified diplomatic and political efforts to help stabilize Iraq.
"Our military has done everything that has been asked of them," he said. "The US cannot accomplish anything further in Iraq militarily. It is time to bring them home."