Los Angeles Times
January 28, 2005
WASHINGTON — Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) called Thursday for a phased U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq, becoming the most prominent member of Congress to advocate a troop pullout since American forces invaded the strife-torn Middle Eastern nation 22 months ago.
Speaking three days before the Iraqi parliamentary elections, Kennedy detailed a plan that called for the immediate pullout of about 10% of American military forces "to send a signal about our intention," followed by a clearly outlined exit strategy.
Kennedy has been a consistent critic of American involvement in Iraq. His speech could help fuel a small but growing movement on Capitol Hill in favor of bringing troops home.
Until recently, politicians from both parties — even those who consider the decision to invade Iraq misguided or the occupation plan shortsighted — have been unanimous that retreat would be irresponsible. Kennedy voiced an alternative view.
"We have reached the point that a prolonged American military presence in Iraq is no longer productive for either Iraq or the United States," Kennedy said at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington. "The U.S. military presence has become part of the problem, not a part of the solution. We need a serious course correction, and we need it now."
A day before Kennedy's address, a group of 23 House Democrats introduced a resolution calling on President Bush to begin the immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq.
"Our very presence in Iraq is the cause of much of the violence," said Rep. Lynn C. Woolsey (D-Petaluma), one of the sponsors. "We have a moral responsibility to leave in order to stem the violence."
Kennedy's five-point plan also included a shift of the main burden of political support for an Iraqi transitional government from the United States to the United Nations, and accelerated training of Iraqi security forces.
Kennedy's proposal was immediately rejected by many Republicans, both inside and outside of the administration, as unhelpful and unrealistic.
A senior Republican Senate aide described the idea of turning over political support of Iraq to the United Nations as "unrealistic," and noted that the Bush administration already had placed a high priority on training Iraqi forces.
"What he's suggesting is either impractical or already being done," the aide said.
Kennedy's remarks came amid mounting public disenchantment about the course of the war and a new willingness among congressional Democrats to challenge the administration on its conduct of the conflict.
But several prominent Democratic critics of the administration's Iraq policies stopped short of endorsing Kennedy's pullout proposal.
"To announce we're going to draw down now in the face of the election, I think, is counterproductive," said Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr.(D-Del.), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), another administration critic, agreed.
"It's been increasingly clear that our entry to Iraq was a strategic mistake," he said. "But you don't compound that by making another mistake to leave peremptorily."
Despite such views, the idea of bringing the troops home appears to be slowly gaining support in Congress.
On Tuesday, Rep. Martin T. Meehan (D-Mass.) argued that a timetable for a phased withdrawal of U.S. troops over the next 12 to 18 months would change the political debate in Iraq and draw more Iraqi support to the transitional government.
Growing public doubts about the wisdom of Bush's policies also have convinced outnumbered Democrats on Capitol Hill that there is political ground on which to take a stand.
"There is a rising concern up here that the president needs to correct the current course in Iraq," a Democratic Senate leadership aide said. "All of these guys are hearing from their constituents about the killed and wounded overseas. Some might quibble about the suggestion of a timetable, however."
That view was echoed in last week's Los Angeles Times poll, which found that 39% of those surveyed thought the Iraq war had been worth fighting.
More than half of those surveyed said the administration should wait to consult the new Iraqi government before withdrawing troops, while just more than one-third said the United States should begin drawing down at least some of its troops.
Kennedy's speech came as the latest in a series of strident criticisms from Democrats directed at the administration's Iraq policies.
The new Democratic boldness was visible during the gloves-off Senate confirmation hearing and subsequent floor debate on Bush's choice for secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice. After a bruising debate, Rice was confirmed Wednesday by a vote of 85 to 13. She received more "no" votes than any secretary of State in 180 years.
Kennedy's conclusion that the American troop presence has become a major element in fueling the insurgency is an idea that has gained credence in recent months.
Analysts tracking events in Iraq describe the insurgency as a splintered and disparate group of fighters with a variety of agendas, but bound by one common goal: driving out the Americans.
The Republican National Committee said Kennedy's statements were pessimistic, partisan and defeatist.
"Kennedy's partisan political attack stands in stark contrast to President Bush's vision of spreading freedom around the world," the GOP statement said. "The world is watching whether America has the will to stand with the Iraqi people as freedom takes root in their nation, and no democracy has ever risen out of defeatism."
But Democrats will have a ready forum to make their case to the American public when the administration goes to Congress to seek more money for the Iraq war, as it must do next month.
"We're going to have an $80-billion supplemental budget that provides an opportunity to talk with the administration," said Meehan, the Massachusetts Democrat. He was referring to the emergency spending measure the administration intends to seek.