If, as expected, George W. Bush next week announces his intention to "surge" some 20,000 additional US troops to Iraq to pacify Baghdad and Sunni-dominated Anbar province, he may find himself in a tougher fight than he expected even a week ago.
Not only are the new Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress lining up in opposition, but a growing number of Republican lawmakers even including staunch Bush loyalists are voicing serious reservations about the idea.
"Baghdad needs reconciliation between Shi’ites and Sunnis," Republican Sen. Norm Coleman, who just returned from Iraq and faces re-election in 2008, told the Los Angeles Times this week. "It doesn’t need more Americans in the crosshairs."
Even ret. Lt. Col. Ollie North, a far-right talk-show host who gained fame as the White House coordinator of what became the Iran-Contra affair 20 years ago, reported that recent interviews with officers and soldiers in Iraq persuaded him that adding more troops to the 140,000 already deployed there would be a mistake.
Indeed, aside from Bush himself, the only forces that appear enthusiastic about what the White House calls a "surge" and what critics call an "escalation" are neoconservatives, who led the drive to invade Iraq, and two of their dwindling number of Congressional supporters, Republican Sen. John McCain and Democratic Sen. Joseph Lieberman, who also just returned from Iraq.
"McCain and Lieberman talked to many of the same officers and senior NCOs [non-commissioned officers] I covered for FOX News during my most recent trip to Iraq," North asserted in his syndicated column Friday.
"Not one of the soldiers, sailors, airmen, Guardsmen or Marines I interviewed told me that they wanted more US boots on the ground. In fact, nearly all expressed just the opposite. ‘We don’t need more American troops, we need more Iraqi troops’ was a common refrain. They are right."
"A ‘surge’ or ‘targeted increase in US troop strength’ or whatever the politicians want to call dispatching more combat troops to Iraq isn’t the answer. Adding more trainers and helping the Iraqis to help themselves is. Sending more US combat troops is simply sending more targets," North wrote.
As some 200 protesters picketed on the street outside Friday, McCain and Lieberman told an appreciative audience at the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute (AEI) which used the occasion to release the latest version of its own "surge" plan, "Choosing Victory: A Plan for Success in Iraq" that substantially increasing US troop strength was essential to avoiding a potentially catastrophic defeat.
Even the authors of the AEI plan, however, warned that the number of additional troops which Bush reportedly plans to send to Iraq as many as five brigades through the spring, or about 20,000 soldiers and Marines will be inadequate.
"We’d be very uncomfortable with less than (five brigades for Baghdad and two for Anbar)," said Frederick Kagan, who has previously called for adding at least 50,000 troops to gain control of Baghdad alone. "We’re really not prepared to compromise on that."
But the White House appears to have calculated for now that 20,000 troops are the most they can get away with, and even that may be too optimistic given its fast deteriorating political position.
According to the latest public opinion polls, nearly three out of four US respondents now say they disapprove of Bush’s handling of Iraq, while confidence in his overall leadership has fallen to record lows. Despite having ostentatiously devoted most of the past month devising a new strategy for Iraq, which Bush is expected to formally unveil in a major policy address next week, a CBS poll this week found that the public does not believe Bush has a "clear plan" for dealing with the situation there.
The same poll showed that the war in Iraq is also considered far and away the most important priority that people here want the new Democrat-led Congress to take up, a finding that no doubt encouraged the two Democratic leaders, House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, to announce in a letter to Bush released Friday that they will oppose any increase in US troops in Iraq.
"Adding more combat troops will only endanger more Americans and stretch our military to the breaking point for no strategic gain," wrote the two leaders, citing recent testimony to that effect by senior US military officers, including the outgoing commanders of US forces in Iraq and the Middle East.
"After nearly four years of combat, tens of thousands of US casualties, and over 300 billion dollars, it is time to bring the war to a close. We, therefore strongly encourage you to reject any plans that call for our getting our troops any deeper into Iraq," they added in what a number of political analysts described as a surprisingly strong stand given traditional Democratic fears of being depicted as "weak on defense."
"This is a great statement," said Jim Cason, an analyst at the Friends Committee on National Legislation, an antiwar lobby group. He noted, however, that, short of cutting off funding for the war, Congress has few vehicles for stopping Bush from going ahead with a deployment.
Nonetheless, one vehicle that looms as a likely battleground probably early next month is Bush’s anticipated request for some 100 billion dollars, in addition to the 75 billion dollars already approved by last year’s Republican-led Congress, to fund US military operations in both Iraq and Afghanistan in fiscal 2007.
While no one expects the Democrats to oppose the request as a whole, the critical issue is whether they will attach conditions to the appropriation. Cason said Democrats should at the least impose conditions requiring Bush to adopt key recommendations of the Iraq Study Group (ISG) the bipartisan, Congressionally-appointed task force headed by former Secretary of State James Baker and former Rep. Lee Hamilton and set a timetable for withdrawal.
Over the past month, Bush has all but rejected the ISG’s most important recommendations, including its call to withdraw virtually all of Washington’s combat forces from Iraq within 15 months, condition aid to the Iraqi government on its progress toward achieving national reconciliation, and engage Syria and Iran as part of a regional effort to stabilize Iraq.
But the ISG’s recommendations have been largely endorsed by the Democratic leadership and by moderate and even more-rightwing Republicans, pointing to the possibility of a relatively strong bipartisan majority in Congress opposed to escalating the war.
"To be successful, the opposition has to include some Republicans, and it’s clear that more Republicans are challenging the president’s Iraq war strategy," according to Cason, who noted that some Republican aides have reported a substantial rise in antiwar mail from constituents since the Democrats’ victory in the November elections.
Aside from constituent pressure, Republican lawmakers are also likely to be impressed by a recent poll of US military personnel by the Military Times that found that only about one in three officers and enlisted servicemembers approve of Bush’s handling of the war and that nearly three in four said they believe the armed forces are stretched too thin to be effective.
(Inter Press Service)