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Times Staff Writers

A day after President Bush implored the nation to support his new Iraq strategy, his top aides met a storm of criticism Thursday from congressional Democrats and Republicans, who questioned whether an American troop escalation could win the war and demanded to know when U.S. forces would finally be able to withdraw.

In tense exchanges during three congressional hearings, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and other officials confronted crumbling support for the administration’s policy and a growing risk that lawmakers might try to impose limits or conditions on the unpopular mission.

“I’ve gone along with the president on this, and I’ve bought into his dream, and at this stage of the game I just don’t think it’s going to happen,” said Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio).


But reflecting the deepening anxiety among lawmakers, Senate centrists also were wary of an expected resolution condemning the new policy, which they said would merely embarrass the president without preventing the buildup.

With overnight polling showing 70% of Americans oppose the plan announced Wednesday in a national presidential address, many lawmakers expressed doubt that America’s Iraqi allies would carry out their lead role in the new security plan. And they worried the White House would not hold the Iraqis to account if the Iraqis failed.

Others questioned whether the plan, which will add as many as 21,500 additional troops to the 132,000 already there, was large enough to suppress sectarian violence in a city of about 6 million. Some predicted a growing confrontation in the next several months if the added U.S. and Iraqi troops did not stem the violence.

In a conspicuous sign of congressional unhappiness with the plan, only one member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, freshman Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), expressed approval of the new approach during Rice’s appearance. Others voiced skepticism that sometimes edged toward hostility.

“I think this speech given last night by this president represents the most dangerous policy blunder in this country since Vietnam, if it’s carried out,” Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) told Rice.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), in an emotional confrontation, recalled Rice’s erroneous prediction to the committee in fall 2005 that the Iraqi army’s increasing capabilities would soon permit a drawdown of U.S. troops.


Boxer had a staff member hold up a placard showing Rice’s declaration, which said: “We are going to be able to bring down the level of our forces. I have no doubt that that’s going to happen in a reasonable time frame.”

Boxer said the president’s planned troop increase was “a total rebuke of your confident pronouncement.”

Bush is calling for U.S. forces to support larger Iraqi units to suppress violence in key mixed neighborhoods of Baghdad. Once the neighborhoods are pacified, the Iraqis and Americans will rush in aid in hope of winning over residents, many of whom are deeply alienated after four years of violence and privation.

Legislation is a possibility

Lawmakers of both parties suggested that the dissatisfied Congress might move to legislate conditions or time limits on the effort.

Rice said she understood the national pessimism but urged restraint. “This is a time for a national imperative not to fail in Iraq,” she said.

The Iraqi leadership, which has failed to live up to some past pledges to provide troops or suppress sectarian violence, is now committed to doing so, Rice said. Prime Minister Nouri Maliki knows his government is on “borrowed time,” she said.


She promised that the Bush administration would take action if the Iraqi government did not, though she declined to specify what action. Rice said it was a bad idea to set timelines given the unpredictability of the situation.

But some lawmakers signaled that they had little patience.

Sen. Russell D. Feingold (D-Wis.) called on Congress to “use its main power -- the power of the purse -- to put an end to this disastrous war.” Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) drew comparisons to the Vietnam War and said Bush could not continue the conflict against the wishes of most Americans.

Yet Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) signaled that Republicans might filibuster Democratic attempts to pass legislation expressing disapproval of the mission.

Even as more Democrats and Republicans voiced concern, some centrist lawmakers sounded a note of caution about resolutions condemning the deployment of additional troops.

“I want nothing to do with a political thing that embarrasses the president,” said Voinovich, who nonetheless said he was “absolutely” against escalating troop levels.

Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), who is often courted by Republicans and who was invited to the White House twice in the last week, said he could not commit to supporting a resolution until he saw it. Unlike most Democrats, Nelson did not fully reject the president’s plan Wednesday night.


In the House

Rep. Sam Farr (D-Carmel) introduced legislation Thursday to repeal the 2002 resolution authorizing the use of force in Iraq.

But House Appropriations Committee Chairman David R. Obey (D-Wis.) said: “I don’t think this policy is going to be changed until the Republicans in the Congress walk down to the White House, just as they did to President Nixon in Watergate, and say, ‘Mr. President, the jig is up.’ ”

As lawmakers weighed in, so did the co-chairmen of the Iraq Study Group, the blue-ribbon commission whose recommendations last month for a troop reduction and other measures were largely spurned by Bush.

In a statement that made clear their disappointment, former Secretary of State James A. Baker III and former Rep. Lee Hamilton (D-Ind.) said they hoped the administration would “further consider” their recommendations -- particularly that Bush seek to withdraw American combat troops from Iraq by 2008, a goal he has refused to endorse.

Baker and Hamilton praised Bush for accepting some of their recommendations, including embedding more U.S. military trainers with Iraqi units and pressing the Iraqi government to act on political reforms. But they noted pointedly that he did not take up many of their central proposals, such as U.S. diplomatic openings to Iran and Syria.

“America’s political leaders have a responsibility to seek a bipartisan consensus on issues of war and peace,” they wrote.


In a packed House Armed Services Committee hearing room, lawmakers of both parties expressed skepticism. Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D-Texas) said he hoped the U.S. was not being “snookered” by the Iraqi leaders. Rep. John M. McHugh (R-N.Y.) called the new policy “a last hope,” at best.

McHugh pressed Gates on what the Bush administration would do if the Iraqi government failed to meet Bush’s benchmarks.

“If, at the end of the day, they don’t keep their commitments that they have made to us ... we would clearly have to re-look at the strategy,” Gates said.

Gates told lawmakers that continuing the U.S. troop buildup would depend on the performance of the Iraqis.

At the Pentagon

A senior military official said that a top priority of U.S. military officials would be ensuring that Iraqis lived up to their end of the bargain.

The official, speaking on condition of anonymity when discussing military plans, said the Pentagon remained skeptical about whether the Iraqi government would live up to its commitment to send capable units to Baghdad and said the Joint Staff would closely monitor the Iraqi formations.


“We’ve heard this before, so we’re going to watch very carefully,” the official said, referring to past failures by the Iraqis to send forces to Baghdad. “We’re watching them down to finite detail: Which unit? Why that unit? What’s the training and readiness assessment of that unit? Where’s it coming from? How many guys got on the bus? We’re going to watch this very carefully.”

Pentagon officials declined to say what they would do if the Iraqi government failed to send all of its forces to Baghdad. They said Gates would make any decisions on halting the U.S. buildup.

Gates told the House committee that Iraqi actions would provide an early measure of the plan’s success.

“We clearly will know within a couple months or so whether this strategy is beginning to bear fruit,” Gates said.

House Democrats cited poll numbers showing most Iraqis approved of attacks on the U.S. military.

Gates, broadly acknowledging American missteps in Iraq, acknowledged that life for many Iraqis had become “much more difficult” despite the removal of Saddam Hussein.


“If the Iraqis are unhappy with our presence and they are willing to attack us, my view would be that it’s because the overall situation in Iraq has become so unsatisfactory,” Gates said. “And probably the fact that many of those Iraqis blame the United States for the mistakes that were made after the original ouster of Saddam Hussein.”

Times staff writers Peter Spiegel, Richard Simon and Noam N. Levey contributed to this report.



Exit strategy

Administration officials have not been specific about what measure of success in Iraq will allow for the withdrawal of U.S. troops. When questioned Thursday by Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D-Hawaii), Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates gave the closest thing yet to a direct answer:

Abercrombie: Let’s suppose that Gen. [Peter] Pace’s description of this plan works -- for conversation’s sake -- what’s the exit strategy?

Gates: The exit strategy is that as the level of violence goes down and as the Iraqis restore control in Baghdad, the presence of the United States would diminish.


Abercrombie: If that doesn’t occur, is there an exit strategy?

Gates: I think that at the outset of the strategy, it’s a mistake to talk about an exit strategy.

Source: Times reporting