About Republican War Critics Find Cover
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Republican War Critics Find Cover info
December 13, 2006
Oregon's Sen. Smith shows how Iraq report can spur a shift among moderates
By Yochi J. Dreazen
President Bush's handling of Iraq has long faced attack from both the left and a few hawkish conservatives. Now, the crisis there is giving him a new political headache: high-profile dissent from the center of his own party.
The dynamic has been triggered by the pessimistic assessment of Iraq released by the Iraq Study Group last week. In ways unimaginable just a few months ago, the report from the bipartisan panel, co-chaired by former Secretary of State James Baker III and former Rep. Lee Hamilton, is giving moderate Republicans political cover to condemn the handling of the war -- creating a dilemma for the president and war supporters such as Sen. John McCain.
The most prominent recent critic is Republican Sen. Gordon Smith of Oregon, a former supporter of the war and two-term senator facing re-election in 2008, who now says he has come to see it as unwinnable and derides U.S. policy in Iraq as "absurd" and "criminal."
But other centrist Republicans, apparently fearful of the war's impact on their re-election prospects, also are using the report to explain changes in war postures. New Hampshire's Republican senators, Judd Gregg and John Sununu, for instance, were once strong backers. In September 2005, Mr. Gregg called the idea of a phased withdrawal from Iraq "a policy that is firmly grounded in Birkenstocks and clearly not grounded in the reality of the world as it is."
Last week, however, Mr. Gregg hailed the report as "an important step forward in our efforts to try to resolve the morass that has become Iraq." Mr. Sununu simply said it showed "we are not winning the struggle in Iraq."
The criticism from Republican moderates represents a new political threat to Mr. Bush, whose handling of Iraq contributed to his party's losses in last month's congressional elections. With most Democrats already against the administration on Iraq, Mr. Bush needs Republican backing to stave off a Congress-led shift on the war. Moderates like Mr. Smith are key to that effort.
The rising tide also could hurt Sen. McCain. The Arizona lawmaker, currently seen as the front-runner for the party's 2008 presidential nomination, is the war's staunchest supporter outside the White House. He has called for sending tens of thousands of new U.S. troops to Iraq. Mr. Smith calls that idea "not politically possible."
Instead, the Oregon Republican wants to begin withdrawing U.S. military forces from Iraq and redeploying a smaller force to bases along the country's borders with Iran and Syria. He would have the U.S. forces that stay in Iraq focus on preventing foreign extremists from crossing into the country and pursuing al Qaeda terrorists in the country. The key, he says in an interview, would be ensuring that U.S. forces are no longer caught in "an ancient civil war that is not our fight and that we cannot fix."
Mr. Smith, who made his fortune in the frozen-food industry before entering politics, voted for the 2002 resolution that authorized Mr. Bush to use military power to oust Saddam Hussein, and he argued diplomacy alone wouldn't be enough to persuade Mr. Hussein to change his ways. In February 2003, weeks before U.S. forces invaded, Mr. Smith told a conference of Oregon Republicans, "If we walk away from this ... history will judge us badly."
In March 2005, he visited Baghdad for the first time since the invasion. Speaking to reporters after his trip, he expressed wariness about the open-ended U.S. military commitment to Iraq. He said he hoped U.S. forces could begin withdrawing that fall to avoid being seen as occupiers. The administration also hoped to begin a U.S. military withdrawal then, a move that might have boosted Republican prospects in mid-term elections.
But the deteriorating situation in Iraq forced the White House to abandon those plans, and Mr. Smith says his pessimism deepened. He visited Iraq again last May and says he left convinced that too many American troops were in the country.
Mr. Smith says the November election underscored the need for a change in Iraq -- policy makers have an obligation to listen "when the public speaks so clearly," he says -- but he didn't decide to make the case publicly until a week ago. That morning, he says, he turned on the news to check the traffic and weather and saw a report that 10 U.S. soldiers had been killed that day in Iraq. Mr. Smith says he fumed over the fatalities during his commute, and concluded the time had come to say publicly what he had thought privately for weeks. The next night, at a lectern in a virtually empty Senate gallery, he declared in a speech, "Either we clear and hold and build, or let's go home."
Mr. Smith, who hadn't been well-known nationally, attracted a flood of television attention with his comments. The White House fielded questions on why a sitting Republican lawmaker was calling Mr. Bush's handling of the war "immoral."
Mr. Smith says a small number of fellow Republican senators gave him the cold shoulder after his speech. Others, he says, told him he had given voice to a feeling they shared but weren't yet willing to voice publicly.
"Many of my colleagues have been telling me, 'Thanks, that needed to be said,'" he says.
Jackie Calmes contributed to this article.