Dissent within the ranks

Antiwar lefties aren't the only ones criticizing Bush's Iraq policy these days. Republicans concerned about their own political future are more openly opposing the unpopular war.

Published June 23, 2005 9:42PM (EDT)

There is an unmistakable sound in Washington as politicians gear up for midterm elections: Amid plummeting public support for the war in Iraq, a growing chorus of congressional voices is opposing the Bush administration's policy.

Alarmingly for President Bush, the dissent isn't coming just from Democrats. Leading Republicans are increasingly expressing their frustration with the war effort -- and this may only be the beginning of Bush's problems within GOP ranks as Republicans assess whether they'll run as allies or critics of Bush's policy in 2006.

The Bush administration, publicly at least, still insists the war in Iraq is proceeding as planned -- even as U.S. casualties continue to mount and the insurgency shows no indications of letting up. Bush spokesman Scott McClellan told reporters at the White House on Tuesday that "the facts on the ground show that the Iraqi people are making important progress on the political front to build a free and democratic future." The next day, McClellan said that success in Iraq was critical because "wherever you stood before the decision to go into Iraq, I think we can all recognize that the terrorists have made it a central front in the war on terrorism."

But increasingly, key Republicans do not see the same Iraq Bush sees, even if the GOP leadership remains lockstep behind the commander in chief. Over the weekend, Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska said in an interview with U.S. News & World Report that "the White House is completely disconnected from reality ... The reality is that we're losing in Iraq." On Sunday, Sen. John McCain was asked on NBC's "Meet the Press" whether Vice President Cheney's comments last week that Iraq is in the "last throes" of the insurgency were correct. "No," McCain tersely replied.

That frank sentiment comes on the heels of a well-publicized reversal from an early outspoken supporter of the war, Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., who coined the term "freedom fries" to express his outrage with France. Perhaps more than many of his colleagues, Jones faces potential electoral fallout from the war in Iraq: He has three major military bases in his district at the eastern end of the state, and counts tens of thousands of veterans among his constituency.

Few Republicans seem prepared to follow Jones in a call for troop withdrawal. Yet their alternative is equally problematic. If Republicans maintain their support for President Bush, they will be hard-pressed to convince voters, as support for the war nears lows of 40 percent, that the war was worth the cost in lives as well as the hundreds of billions in U.S. tax dollars. And with a stalled domestic legislative agenda added to the mix, this could all add up to electoral trouble for Republicans.

"You are looking at a political problem right now," said the chief of staff of a Republican House member on the International Relations Committee, who spoke on background in order to be candid. "Iraq is conceivably a very big problem. It's one of the top three or four issues and it's not going well; the casualties are mounting and it is costing a lot of money, and the light at the end of the tunnel isn't there."

But the problems go beyond Iraq, the advisor said. "There has been no real good news in anything the Congress has done this year, and the polls are showing dissatisfaction with the president. And Republicans are starting to worry about their reelection."

And with good reason. With ethics questions dogging House members, most prominently GOP House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, the president's plan for Social Security reform not gaining momentum, and his choice for U.S. ambassador to the United Nations stalled in the Senate -- not to mention anemic poll numbers -- Republicans are wondering what they'll run on next year. "There is no piece of bright news that you can build a campaign around," the GOP advisor said. The lack of "bright news" gives Republicans an opening to criticize the administration, or may force them to, on Iraq and other issues, with a great deal less political risk than in 2002.

"There comes a point where the leverage of the administration in the second term becomes mighty small," the chief of staff said, "and they will go out and display their own feelings more openly."

Democrats are already doing just that, becoming progressively more vocal in their demands that President Bush alter his strategy in Iraq and define his objectives to the American people. Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware called on Tuesday for Bush to set "clear benchmarks and goals" that speak to "security, governance and politics, reconstruction and burden sharing," and to "report on the progress toward these goals every month in public testimony."

In arguably the most detailed address yet by a leading member of Congress on an alternative strategy in Iraq, Biden also chided Bush for "misleading statements and premature declarations of victory" in the war effort, stating that Bush was remiss for arguing that Iraqi oil would pay for reconstruction and warning that unless the administration's strategy is amended, Iraq could fall into civil war.

Yet Democrats vocal against the war also remain in a tenuous political position. The party is trying to walk a fine line: voicing dissent on the policy while not appearing to politically capitalize on U.S. casualties. To do this, Democrats consistently reaffirm their support for U.S. soldiers as a qualification to any criticism of the war effort.

But last week, demonstrating how Republicans intend to target antiwar Democrats, several in the GOP criticized a statement by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., that the war in Iraq was a "grotesque mistake." Across the aisle, House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., said, "Leader Pelosi and the Democratic leadership should support our troops instead of spreading inflammatory statements."

Inflammatory or not, Pelosi's comments were exactly what antiwar Democrats seek from their leadership. Seconding Pelosi, Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., who sits on the House Committee on International Relations, said in an interview that, "this is a war that is ongoing, for an unspecified time, with unspecified amount of money."

While most congressional Democrats, including Biden, agree with the vast majority of Republicans that the military must continue to engage in Iraq -- that scheduling the withdrawal of U.S. troops would empower the insurgency and destabilize the region -- about 40 House Democrats have formed an "Out of Iraq" caucus calling for a set U.S. troop withdrawal date.

And herein lies another political risk for Democrats. Even if they can largely agree in their opposition to Bush's policy, they haven't reached consensus on how it should be fixed. So while Democrats could gain some political traction with rising public opposition to the war, there is a question of whether their inability to join in calling for a solution could lead to party in-fighting and undermine their message.

To Lee, the California Democrat who is a member of the "Out of Iraq" caucus, Biden's request for a policy shift was "not nearly enough." Lee, who originally opposed the war, added: "We are not saying cut and run, or withdraw tomorrow, but we are saying as soon as possible. You know the president should develop a plan to begin to get our young men and women home."

Much of the caucus has thrown its support behind a House resolution sponsored by two Republicans and two Democrats that calls for the removal of U.S. troops in Iraq to begin by October 2006. One of the Republican sponsors of the resolution was Rep. Walter Jones.

With the 2006 midterm elections on the horizon, Democratic congressional leaders held a rare meeting on Wednesday hoping to further delineate their position on the war in Iraq. Between Biden's calls for loyal opposition and Lee's demands for total opposition, the Democratic Party remains far from united politically on the best strategy to win the peace. Lee, herself, was quick to emphasize that "you can't view the loss of life in a war in the context of elections." But of course, both parties are doing just that.

A rising star among Democrats, Rep. Harold Ford, D-Tenn., recently launched his Senate campaign with a television advertisement calling for U.S. military forces to return home. "Let's work hard to bring them home soon, and with honor, and make them as proud of us as we are of them," Ford says in the ad, marking the upcoming Fourth of July holiday. Ford's advertisement may serve as a harbinger of some campaigns in which Democrats call for troops to return home, especially in the South where support for the military runs deep but so do the scars from ongoing casualties.

Polls suggest Americans are more and more receptive to this message. Two CNN/USA Today/Gallup surveys in June found that for the first time since the onset of hostilities in Iraq, a majority of Americans are against the war. In early June, 56 percent of Americans said the war was not worth fighting. The latest mid-month survey found opposition to the war had increased to 59 percent. An equal percentage of Americans now also support a partial withdrawal of troops from Iraq.

Bush is tentatively expected to address the American people on Iraq next Tuesday, but the White House has not said if it will be during prime time. Tuesday marks the first anniversary of the U.S.-led coalition's transfer of sovereignty to the interim Iraqi government. Earlier this week, standing beside two European leaders, Bush did not speak to public disapproval of the war effort.

"The report from the field is that while it's tough, more and more Iraqis are becoming battle-hardened and trained to defend themselves," Bush said on Monday, the same day that 32 Iraqis died in Iraq, including 13 Iraqi police officers. "And that's exactly the strategy that's going to work."

The president is scheduled to join 80 other world leaders in Brussels this week at a conference on rebuilding Iraq's infrastructure. As it commenced, Iraqi interim Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari called on the international community to honor billions of dollars in pledged aid. Speaking about the Brussels meeting, Biden urged Bush to also accept offers from Egypt, Jordan and France to train moderate numbers of Iraqi forces.

Biden said the White House should create an "accurate measure of the basic quality of life and the delivery of essential services," in order to demonstrably gauge Iraqi sentiment, stating there was a "direct correlation" between popular Iraqi discontent and instability in the country. The Delaware senator added that an "improvement" in Iraqi "standard of living" must be understood as necessary to the ability of U.S. and Iraqi forces to put down the insurgency. Biden added that he continues to "believe we can still succeed in Iraq" and that "failure would be a disaster."

But publicly, failure is far from the minds of the Republican leadership. Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, DeLay was resolute that the situation in Iraq was improving and blamed the media for misconstruing the war.

"You know, if Houston, Texas, was held to the same standard as Iraq is held to, nobody'd go to Houston, because all this reporting coming out of the local press in Houston is violence, murders, robberies, deaths on the highways," the Texan told reporters. "And if you took that as the image of what is a great city that has an incredible quality of life and an incredible economy, it's amazing to me. Go to Iraq. And see what's actually happening there." DeLay proceeded to insist, "Everybody that comes from Iraq is amazed at the difference of what they see on the ground and what they see on the television set."

Currently, the U.S. military death toll in Iraq has exceeded 1,700, with more than 12,000 wounded. The civilian death toll is estimated to be far greater than that of U.S. forces, possibly numbering in the tens of thousands.

Having recently returned from his fifth trip to Iraq, Biden criticized comments like DeLay's, which echo those of the Bush administration. "The disconnect between the administration's rhetoric and the reality on the ground has opened not just a credibility gap, but a credibility chasm," he said. "Standing right in the middle of that chasm are 139,000 American troops."

Though Biden is the ranking Democrat on the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, his address could also be taken as one of the first forays into the 2008 presidential campaign. Hoping to deflect accusations of partisanship, Biden pledged on Tuesday not to criticize Bush if the president modifies his policy on the war.

But Biden warned that should the president maintain his course, Iraq may fall into further turmoil and the United States may be forced to withdraw U.S. troops, while supporting Shiite and Kurdish efforts to defeat the insurgency, much of which is supported by the Sunni minority. "Our bottom-line national security interest," he said, is "preventing a new springboard for terrorism."

By David Paul Kuhn

David Paul Kuhn is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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