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The Conflict in Iraq

Republicans Voice Their Doubts

GOP senators tell Rumsfeld they fear the public is turning against the war in Iraq. 'People are beginning to question,' one says.

June 24, 2005|Maura Reynolds | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — One senator described the public's perception of the war in Iraq as "more and more like Vietnam." A second worried that "our very presence there inspires more insurgents." A third said the strain on the armed forces "is getting worse, not better."

Military brass had heard such comments before when they trooped up Capitol Hill to answer questions from Congress. But this time there was a difference: The comments were coming from Republicans.

"We will lose this war if we leave too soon. And what is likely to make us do that? The public going south," said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). "And that is happening, and that worries me greatly."

Echoing through the questions posed Thursday to Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld and top generals for Iraq was a new note of anxiety, and not just from Democrats long skeptical of the war. Recent polls and phone calls from constituents prompted a series of hang-wringing questions from otherwise supportive Republicans.

One of the most direct was Graham, who described himself as a firm backer of the war from the pro-military state of South Carolina.

"I'm here to tell you, sir, in the most patriotic state that I can imagine, people are beginning to question," Graham said. "And I don't think it's a blip on the radar screen."

In his opening remarks, Rumsfeld had compared the struggle in Iraq to World War II and argued that there are always concerns in the aftermath of war about whether the United States is losing the peace.

Graham picked up on that comment, saying he believed it was fair to compare rebuilding Iraq to rebuilding Europe.

"It is a World War II event, but the public views this every day, Mr. Secretary, more and more like Vietnam," Graham said.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a decorated Vietnam war hero considered a staunch ally of the armed services, described himself as "very worried" about the stress of repeated deployments on the National Guard and reserves as well as reports that attacks on U.S. forces have increased since Iraq regained sovereignty a year ago.

When Army Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the top U.S. general in Iraq, asserted that violence against U.S. forces was at most up only slightly, McCain had a quick retort, delivered in a carefully even tone.

"Thank you, but the fact that it's not significantly down isn't encouraging to me," McCain said.

"And it should not be," Casey responded.

The Republicans tried to walk a fine line, expressing support for the war's objectives while underscoring the depth of public concern.

"There is no question that the American military is the best fighting military in the history of the world, and these insurgents cannot on a military level defeat us," said Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.). "The only way they can win is back here at home, defeating us politically if we lose the support of the American people."

Ensign said he believed the U.S. presence "inspires more insurgents," but then asked the generals whether it was fair for Democrats to compare the misdeeds of U.S. forces to those of totalitarian regimes.

Army Gen. John P. Abizaid, the chief of the U.S. Central Command, sidestepped the specific reference but offered up what amounted to the most candid acknowledgment from the Pentagon officials that all might not be well on the home front.

"Maybe it's something we're not doing right in the field," Abizaid said. "But I can tell you that when my soldiers ... ask me the question whether or not they've got support from the American people or not, that worries me. And they're starting to do that.

"We better have a frank discussion with ourselves," Abizaid continued. "I'm not against the debate. We that are fighting the war think it's a war worth fighting ... but we can't win the war ... without your support and without the support of our people."

Not all Republicans were critical. Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.) dismissed criticism leveled by Democrats, saying, "I think we all know that the cut-and-run caucus is always alive and well."

Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) read a long e-mail from an Army captain describing progress his unit was making in Iraq.

"We're required to ask tough questions. But by the same token, when things are being done right over there, I think we have an obligation to tell the American people it's going right," Chambliss said.

The Democrats pulled few punches. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) said the war had become a "quagmire."

"You basically have mismanaged the war and created an impossible situation for military recruiters and put our forces and our national security in danger. Our troops deserve better, Mr. Secretary," Kennedy said after a long litany of allegations. "In baseball it's three strikes and you're out. What is it for the secretary of Defense?"

Rumsfeld, rarely at a loss for words, appeared momentarily stunned. He paused for a long interval before responding, "Well, that is quite a statement."

Rumsfeld went on to defend himself at some length, but that did not seem to impress Kennedy.

"There have been a series of gross errors and mistakes. Those were on your watch," Kennedy said. "Isn't it time for you to resign?"

Rumsfeld responded sharply: "Senator, I've offered my resignation to the president twice, and he has decided that he would prefer that he not accept it, and that's his call."

After more than four hours, Rumsfeld and his generals left to attend a second, similar grilling from House members. That hearing lasted another four hours.

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