After a summer of mounting discontent over the war in Iraq, President Bush will face renewed criticism from Democrats and Republicans when Congress returns to work next week. But he appears unlikely to come up against an effective challenge to his policy -- because his critics in both parties are deeply divided over what change in course to propose.
“There is an alternative strategy,” said Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), a leading foreign policy critic, but “not a united one.”
Over the last two months, as U.S. combat casualties have risen and efforts to draft a new Iraqi constitution have sputtered, public support for the war has sagged. War protesters, rallied by Cindy Sheehan, a Vacaville, Calif., woman whose son died in Iraq, dogged President Bush at his ranch in Texas and at speeches in Idaho.
Reflecting the public mood, some members of Congress have sharpened their criticism. Sen. Russell D. Feingold (D-Wis.), who is considering a run for president, called on the Bush administration to set a target of December 2006 for withdrawing all U.S. troops from Iraq. Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, a maverick Republican, said the war reminded him of Vietnam: “We’re not winning. We should start figuring out how we get out of there.”
Even Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), a strong Bush ally who will face a tough race for reelection in 2006, said he had privately expressed “concerns” over the administration’s management of the war. “I have a very clear track record of being supportive of the policy but not necessarily all of the tactics,” Santorum told the Philadelphia Inquirer.
But the most outspoken critics are, for now, lonely voices.
Among Democrats, no other senator has seconded Feingold’s call for a withdrawal date, although Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) was considering it, a spokesman said. Among Republicans, none of Hagel’s colleagues endorsed his view of Iraq as a second Vietnam. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), usually a Hagel ally, said the comparison was mistaken and instead called for more troops.
In the House of Representatives, a resolution calling on Bush to begin withdrawing troops by October 2006 gathered 45 cosponsors by the midsummer congressional recess: 40 of the House’s 202 Democrats, four of its 231 Republicans and one independent. Those numbers reflect a sharp contrast between the two parties in Congress.
A large majority of Republicans support Bush’s Iraq policy, but some have been critical about the details. But Democrats appear increasingly divided between a small but growing caucus calling for withdrawal from Iraq, and a larger centrist group -- including such potential presidential candidates as Biden and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) -- that has stopped well short of that step.
“There’s a base in the party that would give the president no power to go to war with Iraq,” Biden acknowledged in an interview. But he said “the vast majority” of Democrats believe that the consequences of leaving Iraq unattended justify continued American involvement.
“This split [in the party] has existed for some time,” he said. “But the idea that the leaders of the party have stayed silent is just not accurate. I’ve made five major speeches, all of them saying we’re running out of time.”
Biden called on the administration to increase the pace of training for Iraqi security forces, to seek more help from European countries and to enlist Syria, Saudi Arabia and Turkey -- Iraq’s neighbors -- in what he called “a regional policy” to stabilize the country.
He said he did not agree with calls like Feingold’s for a specified withdrawal date for U.S. forces. “This is very different from Vietnam,” Biden said. “There’s much more at stake.” Nevertheless, he predicted that “by the end of ’06, we’ll be out of there -- either because we’ve solidified the country, or it will be beyond our control.”
The Democrats’ divisions and the Republicans’ relative unity also reflect what pollsters have found: American opinion on Iraq appears polarized along partisan lines, with an increasing number of Democrats favoring a complete withdrawal of troops.
A CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll in early August found that 33% of all respondents, a record high, agreed with the statement that “the U.S. should withdraw all of its troops from Iraq.” Among Democrats, 52% favored total withdrawal, 26% favored the withdrawal of some troops and 20% favored maintaining the current number of troops or sending more. Among Republicans, 15% favored total withdrawal, 33% favored partial withdrawal and 64% favored maintaining or increasing troop strength.
Those numbers suggest that potential Democratic presidential candidates like Biden and Clinton will face pressure from party activists to call for early troop withdrawals. Republican candidates, on the other hand, will feel the heat from their party’s base to continue supporting Bush’s approach.
The Senate’s Foreign Relations and Armed Services committees plan oversight hearings on Iraq next month.
Although administration officials acknowledged that public anxiety over the war had increased, they argued that none of their critics proposed an alternative policy that would attract majority support with the public or in Congress.
Most of the public may be “uneasy about the war,” said Dan Bartlett, a counselor to the president who serves as Bush’s top communications strategist, “but they don’t support the precipitous withdrawal of troops.”
And, he noted, when troop withdrawal proposals have been made, “that debate is playing out more in the Democratic Party than in the Republican Party.”
Bartlett said Bush had shown he was willing to debate Iraq policy, and was convinced he was on strong ground.
“If you look at the criticisms,” Bartlett added, “a lot of them are, ‘Do it faster, do it better.’ A lot of our critics are literally saying the same thing we are.”
“There is obviously frustration out there; it has become an emotional issue,” said another senior administration official who requested anonymity so he could speak more candidly. “The sentiment is: ‘Do Something!’ But what are we going to do that we aren’t already doing? Nobody has a good answer.”
In an effort to shore up support for the war, Bush has launched a series of speeches defending his policy, beginning with his appearances in Idaho and Utah last week. On Tuesday, a speech in Coronado, Calif., to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II would draw parallels between that struggle and the combat in Iraq, aides said. And a speech in Washington on Sept. 12, to mark the fourth anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, is expected to renew Bush’s argument that Iraq is the central battleground in a war on terrorism.
Administration officials say they believe the antiwar protests led by Sheehan have largely misfired in the wider public, because Sheehan criticized not only the war in Iraq but also the more popular war in Afghanistan. Her remarks have allowed Bush and other officials to charge that their critics want the United States to withdraw from the entire Middle East, not just Iraq.
In the end, Republican pollster Whit Ayres said, public support for the war in Iraq depended largely on one factor: whether Americans believed progress is being made.
“Public opinion on Iraq is overwhelmingly driven by events on the ground,” Ayres said. “Events in Iraq matter far more than the number of American casualties or isolated protests.... Americans don’t like casualties, but they are willing to sustain casualties if they think it’s worth it.
“If Iraq adopts and ratifies a constitution and elects a government, it will have a significant positive effect on public opinion and on people’s willingness to sustain casualties and support the war. But if events on the ground devolve into less desirable conditions, popular support is likely to wane.”
Times staff writers Tyler Marshall in Washington and Peter Wallsten in Crawford contributed to this report.