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Congress Calls for Bush's Iraq Game Plan

The turmoil in the postwar period is far worse than lawmakers from both parties say they expected.

September 04, 2003|Janet Hook | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Members of Congress, alarmed by persistent unrest and violence in Iraq, are clamoring for President Bush to do more to explain his long-term strategy for stabilizing the country to Capitol Hill and to the public.

Lawmakers from both parties who voted for last year's resolution authorizing the war with Iraq said the turmoil there in recent weeks -- including three major bombings -- was far worse than they could have expected for the postwar period.

"It is not working as well as we had hoped," Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine) said Wednesday. "We certainly need to take some corrective action, and the administration will have to be more forthcoming on what their plans are."

No one predicts that concerns about the situation will lead Congress to cut off funds for the reconstruction effort in Iraq or call for withdrawal of U.S. forces. But the unease on Capitol Hill represents an unusually rough patch for an administration whose handling of foreign and military policy has been rarely challenged by Congress in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

"The plan for the war was superb, but the postwar planning has been abysmal," said Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-North Hollywood), a leading Democratic backer of the war. "Mistakes were made and, belatedly, [administration officials] seem to be trying to correct those mistakes -- but with much damage done and a lot of confidence lost."

Many lawmakers welcomed the administration's decision this week to seek a bigger role for the United Nations in rebuilding Iraq, seeing it as a way to share the costs and casualties now being borne mostly by the United States.

But that shift in the administration's position distressed some conservatives who are suspicious of the world body.

"I'd rather not deal with the U.N.," said Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). "But most of us will gag and accept it."

Some Democrats -- while backing the move -- said it was an admission of failure by an administration that long resisted a broader multinational effort.

"I hope this decision means that President Bush is finally changing course in Iraq," said Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, a Democratic presidential candidate who voted for the war resolution. "His misguided, go-it-alone approach is clearly failing, costing American lives and threatening the future of the Iraqi people."

Even some of the war's strongest GOP backers are acknowledging that the postwar policy has been flawed.

"I don't know if you call it eating crow, but we need to make clear that we did underestimate the deterioration of infrastructure" and the cost of rebuilding Iraq, said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). "Time is not on our side, and the next few months will determine how difficult our challenge will be."

An aide to a veteran Senate Republican said, "There is general concern about whether the administration has its act together. Before [lawmakers] left for August recess there was concern. Now it has moved to Code Orange."

Even Republicans who remain unshaken in their support for the administration's policy believe that Bush needs to do more to make his case to the public.

House GOP leaders are urging the White House to offer a more aggressive defense of its efforts in Iraq as a key part of the war on terrorism -- especially if, as expected, the administration soon requests significantly more money for the operations there.

"If you are going to make that kind of request, you have to make clear why and what our goals are," said a senior House Republican leadership aide. "The administration needs to make a much more articulate and forceful argument."

Some believe Bush needs to make a full-dress, prime-time televised address to the nation.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) said the public and Congress would be more comfortable supporting another big spending request if Bush presented it as part of a broader plan.

"There is an eagerness on the part of my constituents for a sharpened focus," Lugar said. "Confidence would be built by the president having a comprehensive, multiyear plan."

The administration has not said when it would be asking for more money or how much it would seek. But the request is expected to run into the tens of billions of dollars.

Sen. John B. Breaux (D-La.), a war supporter, said Congress might be less willing to foot the full bill if the administration failed to persuade more nations to help out in Iraq.

"Unless they show some progress in increasing international involvement, there is going to be strong hesitation to increase the size and financial commitment in Iraq," Breaux said.

A senior Republican strategist said that even in the House, where Republicans are especially loyal to Bush, the funding request could be a tough pill to swallow in the wake of a recent report that the 2004 federal budget deficit would reach record levels.

"There's a [projected] $480-billion deficit, and we're trying to [approve] a $400-billion Medicare drug benefit," said the House GOP aide. "In the minds of members, especially conservatives, these things add up."

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