With his Iraq policies under attack from prominent members of his party, President Bush on Tuesday defiantly rejected calls to withdraw troops while Senate allies blocked the latest challenge to his strategy.
“I understand there’s a debate.... But I believe that it’s in this nation’s interests to give the commander a chance to fully implement his operations,” Bush said in a speech to business executives, in which he repeatedly defended his controversial 30,000-troop buildup.
The “surge,” announced in January, reached full strength in mid-June.
“They just showed up,” Bush said. “And they’re now beginning operations in full. And in Washington, you got people saying, ‘Stop.’ ”
The president’s unwavering defense of his strategy came amid heightened expectations that growing Republican restlessness on Capitol Hill and the lack of progress in Iraq might persuade Bush to express more openness to changing course.
In the last two weeks, five Senate Republicans, including longtime White House allies, have gone public with their concerns about the surge and urged the president to shift strategy.
Other GOP lawmakers who have been more openly critical of the Bush administration’s policies have expressed new willingness to join with congressional Democrats seeking to force an end to the war.
At the same time, administration officials openly concede that the Iraqi government has failed to make significant progress on a number of the goals outlined by Congress this spring to reduce sectarian strife.
But senior Bush administration officials mounted an intense campaign in recent days to implore Senate Republicans to give the current strategy two more months before they abandon it.
The troop buildup is designed to quell violence in Baghdad and Al Anbar province to allow Iraqi leaders to reduce tensions among the country’s sectarian communities.
The administration deployed White House Chief of Staff Joshua B. Bolten, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, national security advisor Stephen J. Hadley and others to talk to GOP lawmakers.
Meanwhile, Senate GOP leaders rallied to block a Democratic proposal that would require the military to ensure troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan get more rest time at home before they are redeployed, a policy that would curtail the Pentagon’s ability to maintain current troop levels in Iraq.
The measure sponsored by Sens. Jim Webb (D-Va.) and Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), both Vietnam veterans, stalled on Capitol Hill on Tuesday when Republican leaders insisted that it reach a 60-vote supermajority to be included in the defense authorization bill.
Keeping his position
Nearly 400 miles away in Ohio, the president defied his critics again, largely repeating the calls for patience he has been making for years and restating his conviction that a successful surge would eventually allow a partial withdrawal.
“I believe we can be in a different position in a while,” Bush said, “and that would be to have enough troops there to guard the territorial integrity of that country, enough troops there to make sure that Al Qaeda doesn’t gain safe haven from which to be able to launch further attacks against the United States of America, enough troops to be embedded and to help train the Iraqis to do their job.”
The president’s remarks drew sharp criticism from Democratic leaders.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), a staunch war critic who has led his party’s efforts this year to force a withdrawal, said he was surprised Bush had not indicated any willingness to reconsider his strategy.
“It seems that rather than changing, he’s dug his heels in even more,” Reid said.
Citing the president’s pledge six months ago to hold the Iraqi government to a series of benchmarks, House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) derided the president for showing “no intention of changing course even as the Iraqis have failed to meet those benchmarks, and have shown no ability to arrest the spiraling violence.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) announced late Tuesday that she planned a vote later this week on new legislation mandating that a troop withdrawal begin in 120 days and be completed by April 1.
Congressional Democrats appear to have the public on their side.
A Gallup/USA Today poll released Tuesday showed record opposition to the war, with 71% of respondents saying they favor pulling out of Iraq by April 1. However, 55% also said they believed Congress should wait until the U.S. commander in Iraq delivers a full report Sept. 15 before making any decisions.
But Democratic efforts to leverage public sentiment into legislative action continue to founder in the narrowly divided Senate, where Democrats control a one-vote majority.
Just as the latest legislative campaign to force the president to alter his approach was getting underway Tuesday, Republican leaders succeeded in stalling it.
That upset Democratic plans to march through a series of votes on the war, including a proposal to compel a major withdrawal by spring.
A group of moderate lawmakers is also working on proposals that would not explicitly require a withdrawal, but would transition U.S. troops out of their current mission of quelling sectarian violence.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a leading defender of the president’s strategy who just returned from a trip to Iraq, blamed Democrats for the delays.
“Why do we have to keep taking up the Iraq issue when we know that in September there will be a major debate?” McCain said after delivering an impassioned indictment of the proposal to pull out of Iraq. “The American people are wondering what the heck are we all about here.”
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.), who has helped lead the efforts to bring home U.S. troops, retorted that there was no reason to postpone the debate until then.
“Waiting for September ... is a delaying tactic on an issue that is the single most important issue on the minds of Americans today,” Levin said on the floor of the Senate. “The American people want us to act.”
Reynolds reported from Cleveland and Levey from Washington. Times staff writers Richard Simon and Julian Barnes in Washington contributed to this report.