December 1, 2005  

Exit strategy

In Iraqi elections, Congress sees opportunity to withdraw troops

On Dec. 15, Iraqi voters go to polling places to elect a parliament. Could that be an ideal time for President Bush to vote, too — with his feet?

A successful election featuring candidates from the major Iraqi factions is just what Bush needs to declare victory in Iraq and start bringing U.S. troops home, say some members of Congress, including a small but growing number of Republicans.

The president has vowed repeatedly not to cut and run but to stay the course and finish the job. But he has never been clear on how he or anyone else will know when the job is done.

Increasingly, lawmakers are telling him that an opportunity to begin pulling U.S. troops out of Iraq is at hand — and that the president should seize it.

Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., is one of them.

Although he voted for the October 2002 resolution authorizing the president to go to war against Iraq, Jones decided last summer that U.S. forces had largely accomplished their mission and should start planning to come home.

In an interview, Jones enumerated the accomplishments: U.S. troops deposed and later arrested Saddam Hussein, who is standing trial for torture and murder. They have trained tens of thousands of Iraqi security forces. They enabled Iraq to hold democratic elections last January — the first in a half-century. They made possible the October vote for a new constitution and this month’s parliamentary election.

With Iraq’s political process maturing and its security forces improving, it is time for Bush to develop a plan for bringing U.S. troops home, said Jones, whose coastal district includes Camp Lejeune, home to one-fifth of the Marine Corps.

To that end, Jones co-sponsored legislation that would require Bush to announce by Dec. 31 a plan to withdraw all U.S. troops from Iraq and turn military operations over to the elected Iraqi government.

Jones stressed that he is not calling for an immediate troop withdrawal or even for a set timetable for withdrawal. He simply wants a plan for withdrawal — an exit strategy.

The legislation, introduced in June, was referred to the House Armed Services and International Relations committees, and there it has languished. It is unlikely that the committees’ chairmen will let it come to a vote for fear of embarrassing and angering the president.

But in the months since it was introduced, the bill has picked up 62 co-sponsors, including five Republicans.

Jones said, “I have noticed that particularly since August, [Republican] colleagues have asked me for copies of the resolution and letters of support” that have come from former Republican Navy Secretary James Webb, a Marine infantry officer in Vietnam; former Sen. Max Cleland, D-Ga., an Army officer gravely wounded in Vietnam; and others.

Rep. John Duncan, R-Tenn., said he, too, is sensing a gradual shift in support for the war among some House Republicans.

“I’ve had several Republican members come up to me and say they wish they had voted against war,” said Duncan, who was one of only six House Republicans to vote ‘no’ in October 2002, on the resolution that authorized use of military force against Iraq.


Invading Iraq five months later was “one of the biggest foreign policy mistakes we’ve ever made,” Duncan said. “As a conservative Republican, I’ve always said there’s nothing conservative about this war.”

The war has required “huge deficit spending and massive foreign aid,” both anathema to true conservatives, he said. And by going to war, Congress and the president saddled American taxpayers with the full burden of enforcing United Nations sanctions against Saddam Hussein. True conservatives have been steadfast critics of the U.N. and of the United States assuming the job of world police, he said.

As for the cost of the war, Duncan said he was summoned to the White House two or three days before the vote and was assured that estimates that the war would cost $200 billion were much too high. In October, the Congressional Research Service reported that allocations for Iraq had reached $357 billion.

It would have been much cheaper to supply Iraqi dissidents with the arms they needed to overthrow Saddam themselves, Duncan said.

As for the Bush administration’s claims that Saddam possessed weapons of mass destruction, “more and more people across the country are realizing that there really was no threat,” he said.

“When I hear people say we shouldn’t have gotten in there, but now that we’re there we’ve got to finish the job, we can’t cut and run, I say that’s like driving down the interstate going the wrong way. You don’t keep going, you get off at the next exit.

“The president should put the most positive spin on it he can and say, we’ve spent billions of dollars, we’ve gotten rid of Hussein, we’ve rebuilt schools and power systems. He could say the time has come for Iraqis to take back Iraq. We need to start a phased withdrawal.”

Rep. Jim Leach, R-Iowa, who also voted against the war in 2002, offered this advice to the president in a speech in Des Moines: “Realistically recognize what has not gone well but nonetheless accentuate the positive, not as a rationale for continuing the war, but as the reason for disengagement.”

Leach urged Bush to use the December elections as a reason to “announce that this new sovereign circumstance allows for comprehensive troop drawdowns next year.”

The time is right, Leach said.

“If we don’t get out of Iraq at a time of our own choosing and on our own terms, we will eventually be asked to leave, possibly ignominiously, by the Iraqi government.”

Leach and others argue that as Iraqi security forces become more capable, the continued presence of U.S. troops may generate more violence than it quells.

“We are fast reaching a stage where the anarchists may be more credibly dealt with by Iraqis themselves,” Leach said.

Democrats have been much more blunt.

On Nov. 17, Rep. John P. Murtha of Pennsylvania, a former Marine and strong military supporter, called for beginning to bring U.S. troops home from Iraq immediately.

“The war in Iraq is not going as advertised. It is a flawed policy wrapped in illusion,” Murtha said during a news conference. “The United States and coalition troops have done all they can in Iraq, but it is time for a change in direction.”

Murtha, who supported the 2002 war resolution, said “the main reason for going to war has been discredited.” No stockpiles of chemical or biological weapons have been discovered in Iraq.

But after 2½ years of war, U.S. troops “have become the primary targets of the insurgency,” Murtha said. “Our military is suffering. The future of our country is at risk. We cannot continue on the present course. It is evident that continued military action is not in the best interests of the United States of America, the Iraqi people or the Persian Gulf Region.”


Discontent over the war in Iraq has also erupted in the Senate.

In October, Senators voted 90-9 in favor of an amendment by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., that would outlaw cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment of military detainees in U.S. custody.

Forty-six Republicans voted for the amendment despite strident lobbying against it by Vice President Dick Cheney and a veto threat from the White House.

Then on Nov. 15, senators also approved an amendment urging President Bush to set a “strategy for the successful completion of the mission in Iraq.”

Senators said 2006 should be a year of transition in which political and military control are taken over by Iraq.

Sen. John Warner, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the amendment was intended to send a message to the Iraqi people that “we have done our share, now the challenge is up to you.”

The Senate rejected a stronger Democratic amendment that sought to get Bush to set a timetable for withdrawing the 160,000 U.S. troops in Iraq.

On Nov. 1 Senate Democrats infuriated Republicans by triggering a rare executive session to force an end to more than a year of Republican stalling on a review of the Bush administration’s use — or misuse — of intelligence concerning Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction.

The Democrats have tapped growing public disenchantment with the war in Iraq.

“There’s nothing more important to a Congress or a president than war. I think the American people are entitled to know how we got there. That’s what this is all about,” said Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., vice chairman of the intelligence committee, blasted the Senate’s Republican leaders and the Bush administration.

“What disturbs me the most is the majority has been willing, in this senator’s judgment, to take orders from this administration when it comes to limiting the scope of appropriate, authorized and necessary oversight investigations,” he said.

The Senate action came as polls disclosed that President Bush’s approval ratings were sinking ever lower.

According to an ABC News poll, by early November, 60 percent of Americans thought the war was not worth fighting and 55 percent said the Bush administration intentionally misled the American public to generate support for the war.

A CBS poll found Bush’s approval rating even lower at 35 percent.

The polls were published just days after Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, Lewis “Scooter” Libby, was indicted for allegedly lying to investigators probing the identity leak of CIA agent Valerie Plame. The leak is believed by many to have been retaliation against Plame’s husband, former Ambassador. Joseph Wilson, who wrote in July 2003 that the Bush administration knew reports about Iraq’s nuclear program were false, but used them anyway to generate support for going to war.

“The indictment of Scooter Libby raises some real serious questions about the intelligence that was presented for justification for going to war,” Jones said. “We were told there was WMD. In my mind, that was the justification” for going to war.

Jones said he is pleased that the Senate is pushing ahead with Phase Two of the intelligence committee investigation. “The American people want to know the truth.”

So far, Jones said, there is no similar push for an investigation in the House.

But in a more general sense, support for the war is eroding, Duncan said.

“Somebody needs to tell the president he’s going to be greatly criticized no matter what he does,” Duncan said. “If he stays in Iraq there will be criticism, and disenchantment is going to grow. If he gets out, he will be criticized, too, but I think it would last a lot less time,” Duncan said.

Will Bush and his top policymakers use the Dec. 15 election as the key to an exit from Iraq?

It’s doubtful, Duncan said.

“I think they’re dug in and not humanly able to admit that they made a mistake,” he said.