Neocons Try to Rally, Bully Republicans

In the face of a critical Senate debate on future U.S. strategy in Iraq, neoconservatives and other hawks are trying to rally increasingly skeptical – and worried – Republicans behind continued support for President George W. Bush’s five-month-old "surge" strategy.

They are arguing that the surge – the deployment of an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to try to pacify Baghdad to encourage political compromise among the major groups in Iraq – has not been given sufficient time to work and that abandoning it now would amount to snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

But the recent defection of several hitherto loyal, if privately critical, senior Republican senators has thrown the hawks – both inside and outside the administration – into something of a panic, if only because antiwar Democrats appear to be inching steadily toward the kind of majority that Bush can no longer simply ignore.

Indeed, the New York Times Monday reported that the administration is itself increasingly divided over what to do, with some officials, notably Defense Secretary Robert Gates, "quietly pressing" for beginning a gradual withdrawal of combat troops consistent with the recommendations last December of the Iraq Study Group (ISG), of which he was a member until his nomination last November.

While the White House, through the personal diplomacy of Bush’s national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, has been spending an extraordinary amount of time "listening" to the skeptics in hopes of keeping them from crossing the aisle on key war-related measures due to be voted on over the next two weeks, neoconservatives allied outside the administration are taking a harsher tack.

"They are pre-9/11 Republicans," wrote William Kristol, the editor of the Weekly Standard, about Senators Richard Lugar, George Voinovich, Pete Domenici, and John Warner, the four most-senior Republicans who have called for a change of course in Iraq over the past week.

"They have been followers of conventional opinion [during their 20-plus-year Senate careers], not leaders," he went on. "Now they are following conventional wisdom again, in their stately way, in turning against the Iraq war."

"Republicans may think they can distance themselves from all this, but they’ll get no credit from voters if they contribute to an ugly outcome in Iraq," argued the lead editorial in Monday’s Wall Street Journal. "A divided Republican caucus that undercuts America’s military efforts while chasing the mirage of bipartisan comity will only make their own election defeat [in November 2008] more likely."

Both warnings came as the Senate begins what is expected to be a debate that could stretch until Congress’ August recess on the nearly $650-billion 2008 Defense Authorization bill to which Democrats hope to attach a series of Iraq-related amendments that are fiercely opposed by the hawks.

At least two Democratic amendments, both backed by Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid, will call for withdrawing all U.S. combat forces from Iraq by some time next spring or summer. They also more narrowly define the mission of the remaining troops – still likely to number in the tens of thousands – as training Iraqi forces, helping to secure international borders, striking al-Qaeda and other terrorist targets, and protecting U.S. facilities and personnel there.

Similar amendments were approved by the Senate earlier this year but ultimately failed due to parliamentary maneuvers or a Bush veto that could not be overcome by the small Democratic majority. (Two-thirds of each congressional chamber are needed to override a presidential veto.)

Another likely amendment, co-sponsored by Senators Hillary Clinton and Robert Byrd, would repeal Congress’ 2002 authorization for the use of force in Iraq and require Bush to seek a new authorization defining the specific mission and strategy of U.S. forces there before additional money could be spent on the war.

Yet another, sponsored by Sen. James Webb, would require that active-duty troops be given at least the same amount of time to rest at home as they are deployed to a war zone – a provision that would make continuation of the current of "surge" of a total of some 165,000 Army troops and Marines in Iraq impossible to sustain.

While the White House believes it can keep enough Republicans in line on these amendments to defeat their adoption, it is worried that one or two of them could attract as many as 60 votes and thus highlight the erosion in support for its strategy over the past month.

A strong antiwar showing would increase pressure to reverse course even before the mid-September report that Gen. David Petraeus, the military commander charged with implementing the surge, is expected to submit to Congress. Until last week’s defections, the surge would not come under serious challenge until after Petraeus delivered his assessment.

The hawks, however, are also very concerned that another amendment, the product of several weeks’ work by as many as a dozen centrist Democrats and Republicans, including several of the Republican defectors, may be approved by a veto-proof margin.

That amendment would declare the recommendations of the ISG, which was co-chaired by former Secretary of State James Baker and former Democratic Rep. Lee Hamilton, to be official U.S. policy.

Those recommendations, which included a withdrawal of U.S. combat forces by the end of next March, U.S. diplomatic engagement with Syria and Iran, and intensified efforts to achieve a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, are considered anathema by the hawks, especially pro-Likud neoconservatives who launched a major propaganda campaign against the ISG even before it released its study seven months ago.

Lugar, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, explicitly endorsed key ISG recommendations in a major policy address two weeks ago in which he warned that failure to initiate a drawdown of U.S. combat forces in Iraq "very soon" could pose "extreme risks for U.S. national security [because] … it would greatly increase the chances for a poorly planned withdrawal from Iraq or possibly the broader Middle East region that could damage U.S. interests for decades."

Lugar’s remarks were hailed at the time by Warner, who predicted that a number of other Republicans were likely to voice similar concerns in the upcoming debate over the defense bill. Warner, whose former chairmanship of the Armed Services Committee has made him particularly influential with on defense issues with his fellow-Republicans, has since become the subject of intense White House lobbying.

After his speech, Lugar became a focus of neoconservative wrath, with Kristol describing his address as a "case study in pseudo-thoughtfulness, full of cheek-puffing and chin-pulling" and Thomas Donnelly of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) accusing him of "sound[ing] more like an investor rebalancing his portfolio, selling Iraq and buying Israel-Palestine, than a man thinking about strategy in war."

In their view, the surge has resulted in major military gains in recent weeks, even if the political reconciliation that it was supposed to promote has been nowhere in sight, a point made emphatically by Lugar, Warner, and other Republican critics.

"The tragedy of these efforts is we are on the cusp of potentially being successful in the next year in a way that we have failed in the three-plus preceding years," retired Gen. Jack Keane, one of the surge’s architects who made much the same point at a special AEI forum on the surge here Monday, told the neoconservative New York Sun last week, "but because of this political pressure, it looks like we intend to pull out the rug from underneath that potential success."

In its own editorial Monday, the Sun called the possible approval of legislation setting a withdrawal timetable "the most astounding act of perfidy in the history of Congress."

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.