President George W. Bush’s decision to escalate U.S. military intervention in Iraq and issue new threats against Syria and Iran appears to have left him politically more isolated than ever.
Both Democrats and Republicans expressed regret that Bush appeared to reject the central recommendations of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group (ISG), particularly its call to gradually withdraw U.S. combat troops, tie future support for the Iraqi government to its efforts at healing the sectarian divide, and directly engage Iran and Syria, along with Baghdad’s other neighbors, to stabilize the country.
At the same time, military analysts said the 21,500 troops Bush plans to add to the 132,000 already deployed to Iraq were unlikely to succeed in their mission to pacify Baghdad and al Anbar province.
“I don’t think 21,000 troops is enough,” according to ret. Lt. Gen. Dan Christman, who also noted that the deployment dangerously reduces Washington’s ability to deal with other potential military crises, such as Afghanistan or the Horn of Africa. “The 21,000 constitutes the bulk of our strategic reserve,” he told CNN. “That’s my big worry.”
Sensing Bush’s growing vulnerability, Democrats in Congress moved to force a series of votes in the coming weeks designed to underline opposition to the president’s strategic direction by disaffected Republicans as well as increasingly aggressive Democratic majorities in both houses.
As many as a dozen Republican senators are expected to vote as early as next week for a resolution proposed by the Senate Democratic leadership expressing disapproval of the troop increase, or “surge”.
“What we see is an awful lot of people on both sides of the aisle saying this is not the right policy,” said Jim Cason of the Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL), a lobby group opposed to the Iraq war.
While the resolution would not be binding on Bush, who plans to begin deploying the additional troops Monday, it would lay the foundation for conditioning future funding for the war on a phased withdrawal, according to its sponsors. The first opportunity is likely to come next month when the administration is expected to ask Congress to approve some 100 billion dollars in additional funding for military operations this year in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“If we can get a majority (on the non-binding resolution), that would be the first step toward turning this ship around,” said the new Democratic chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Carl Levin.
Indeed, less than 18 hours after the speech, a number of senior Republicans, including the ranking Republicans on the Senate Foreign Relations and Armed Services Committees, Richard Lugar and John Warner, respectively, indicated they had strong reservations about the new strategy.
“I do not believe that sending more troops to Iraq is the answer,” Brownback, a long-time favourite of the Christian Right, said in a statement released from Baghdad, where he met this week with senior U.S. and Iraqi officials, including Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
“Instead of surging troops, we must press the Iraqi government to reach a political solution,” Brownback said, echoing what has become a Democratic mantra since their victory in the November mid-term elections. “The best way to reach a democratic Iraq is to empower the Iraqis to take responsibility for their own nation-building.”
Hagel is a conservative whose outspoken opposition to Bush’s Middle East policy has until now made him the darkest horse in the race for the 2008 presidential nomination. He told Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice during a Foreign Relations Committee hearing Thursday that he considered Bush’s strategy, particularly his new threats against Syria and Iran, to be “the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam if it’s carried out.”
In his speech, Bush had charged both countries with granting safe passage in and out of Iraq to “terrorists and insurgents” and accused Iran in particular of “providing material support for attacks on American troops.”
In response, he announced the deployment of a second aircraft carrier strike group to the Gulf and pledged to “destroy the networks providing advanced weaponry and training to our enemies in Iraq.”
In what appeared to be a deliberate ratcheting up of tensions with Tehran, helicopter-borne U.S. troops had raided the Iranian consulate in the Iraqi Kurdish city of Irbil several hours earlier, reportedly taking five of its staff captive and drawing protests from both Iran and local Kurdish authorities.
“When you set in motion the kind of policy that the president is talking about here, it’s very, very dangerous,” said Hagel, while the committee’s new Democratic chairman, Joseph Biden, warned Rice that administration lacked the legal authority to carry out cross-border attacks on either Syria or Iran.
Nor were Brownback and Hagel the only likely presidential candidates to come out in strong opposition to the surge. On the Democratic side, Sen. Hillary Clinton, the only likely 2008 candidate who had not explicitly rejected the surge before Bush’s speech, issued a statement late Wednesday denouncing the plan.
“The president simply has not gotten the message sent loudly and clearly by the American people that we desperately need a new course,” she said. “The president has not offered a new direction; instead he will continue to take us down the wrong road only faster.”
Other Democrats who until now have previously been leery of breaking with Bush made clear that they had had enough. “I have supported you and the administration on the war, and I cannot continue to support the administration’s position,” Florida Sen. Ben Nelson told Rice Thursday. “And I don’t come to this conclusion very lightly.”
At the same time, the Congressional Democratic leadership issued their own joint statement that, for the first time, effectively endorsed the main recommendations of the ISG, the bipartisan group co-chaired by former Secretary of State James Baker and former Democratic Rep. Lee Hamilton.
Instead of sending more troops, the leadership wrote, the U.S. should reduce its combat role in favor of training, logistics and counter-terrorism operations; begin the phased “redeployment”, or withdrawal, of U.S. forces from Iraq within six months; implement an “aggressive diplomatic strategy, both within the region and beyond” to help stabilize Iraq; and condition future U.S. support on steps by Iraq’s leaders to end sectarian conflict and reach a political settlement.
“Last night, the president chose, fundamentally, to ignore the foundation built by the Iraq Study Group (on) a bipartisan basis, and knowingly and willfully divided the country yet again… over this issue,” Sen. John Kerry like both Biden and Clinton, a likely 2008 presidential candidate complained to Rice.
In his remarks Wednesday, Bush explicitly rejected any withdrawal at this point, insisting that “to step back now would force a collapse of the Iraqi government.” In her testimony Thursday, Rice also rejected the ISG’s call for direct negotiations with Syria and Iran, arguing that such an effort would “put us in the role of supplicant, and that is a problem.”
Even some neo-conservatives, the most die-hard of Bush’s defenders, said they were skeptical that his plan would succeed. “I wouldn’t give it 50:50 odds,” said New York Times columnist David Brooks, who said he nonetheless supports it because “it’s the only thing on the table.”
For Lawrence Kaplan, a senior editor of The New Republic, however, Bush has already lost the war at home. “An effective counterinsurgency strategy requires time and patience. Americans have run out of both,” he wrote Thursday.
(Inter Press Service)