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Congress Continues Debate on Iraq Strategy

January 30, 2007 at 2:20 PM EDT
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KWAME HOLMAN: Debate over the Bush administration’s Iraq policy spread across the Capitol today, as members of Congress, top military officials, and policy experts explored alternative approaches.

At one Senate hearing, Republican Arlen Specter challenged the president to reconsider his plan to send 21,500 more troops to Iraq.

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER (R), Pennsylvania: The president repeatedly makes reference to the fact that he is the “decider.” I would suggest, suggest respectfully to the president that he is not the sole decider.

KWAME HOLMAN: At another hearing, the president’s choice to head U.S. forces in the Middle East asserted the administration’s proposed military build-up was just part of the solution.

ADM. WILLIAM FALLON, U.S. Navy: What we’ve been doing is not working. And we have got to be doing, it seems to me, something different.

KWAME HOLMAN: And at a third hearing, the chairman of the Iraq Study Group urged the president to include diplomatic talks with Iran and Syria along with his military plan.

LEE HAMILTON, Co-Chair, Iraq Study Group: Our policy of isolation is not working. We don’t have a lot to lose, frankly.

Hamilton and Baker

KWAME HOLMAN: Former Secretary of State James Baker and former Congressman Lee Hamilton appeared on Capitol Hill together for the first time since the president proposed the troop increase for Iraq. And when Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joe Biden focused on the centerpiece of the plan, more troops deployed to Baghdad and western Iraq, a fissure developed between the veteran statesmen.

JAMES BAKER, Co-Chair, Iraq Study Group: When we were in Baghdad, everybody told us, everybody told us that, as Baghdad goes, so goes Iraq. And we believe that our forces are able to undertake both a surge in Baghdad, under the conditions we laid out, short term, and provided the commander on the ground authorizes it, and the training of Iraqi forces. Our report, I think, makes that clear. And I need to say that. Because it...

SEN. JOE BIDEN (D), Delaware: It doesn't sound like that's what Congressman Hamilton is saying.

LEE HAMILTON: There's another point here that's very important, Mr. Chairman. I'm sorry to go on...

SEN. JOE BIDEN: No, this is the key distinction. And it's worth you taking time.

LEE HAMILTON: We say that the training of the Iraqi forces must be the primary mission. By "primary mission," we mean we have to put the highest priority on training the Iraqi forces.

KWAME HOLMAN: Nebraska Republican Chuck Hagel, a vocal opponent of the president's plan, focused on the diplomatic track, asking why there was no administration engagement with Iran and Syria. He asked where that would lead American presence in the region and ended up taking issue with Secretary Baker's answer.

JAMES BAKER: I know that.

SEN. CHUCK HAGEL (R), Nebraska: I asked you what you thought was the outcome of the reality of where we're going. But that isn't reality when you say, "Well, if we would do this, if we would do this."

JAMES BAKER: Well, they -- the administration is -- they are pursuing a diplomatic approach, not the one necessarily that we lay out in here. Perhaps not...

SEN. CHUCK HAGEL: Would you define that diplomatic approach?

JAMES BAKER: Yes. They're lining up our historic allies in the region to enlist them in adopting the same policy toward Iran that we have, which is a policy of isolation.

KWAME HOLMAN: Baker did reiterate forcefully his view that there should be active engagement with Syria.

JAMES BAKER: If we could -- and I believe we can -- move them away from their -- again, their marriage of convenience with Iran, that would do a lot -- that would do a lot more than I think we're able to do right now to marginalize Iran.

KWAME HOLMAN: During questioning from New Hampshire Republican John Sununu, Hamilton and Baker again diverged on how best to force Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to improve his security forces and foster national reconciliation.

JAMES BAKER: Lee wanted us to say that the president should lay it all out there publicly and, in effect, make a public statement or a threat. And maybe it was because I was a former secretary of state, I thought it might be better done privately.

SEN. JOHN SUNUNU (R), New Hampshire: I'm sorry to have driven such a sharp wedge between the two of you.

JAMES BAKER: You didn't. The wedge was there, but we worked it out.

LEE HAMILTON: Quite frankly, I've lost my patience with Maliki. And I think we've got to put the screws on this fellow.

Adm. Fallon testifies

KWAME HOLMAN: Earlier in the day, testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee was Admiral William Fallon who, if confirmed, will be the first Navy man to lead the U.S. Central Command, a region comprising 27 countries, stretching from Sudan in East Africa to Pakistan.

SEN. CARL LEVIN (D), Michigan: The most daunting challenge will be Iraq.

KWAME HOLMAN: The admiral received bipartisan admonitions to be candid with Congress.

SEN. CARL LEVIN: Do you agree to give your personal views when asked before this committee to do so, even if those views differ from the administration in power?

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), Arizona: I have to tell you, this committee did not get candid assessments in the past. And I view that with deep regret, because I think the American people and their representatives deserved better.

KWAME HOLMAN: Admiral Fallon assured the panel he would be straightforward with his views and went on to argue for a comprehensive counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq.

ADM. WILLIAM FALLON: Security is but one aspect of what must be a comprehensive effort to address not only this issue, but economic development and a reinvigorated participatory political process in Iraq by Iraqis.

There's a body of evidence that indicates that, to be successful in this endeavor, historically you've had to get in amongst the population, to convince them that you really care about them and that you are able to provide security on scene rather than just passing through an area.

KWAME HOLMAN: South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham wanted Fallon to make clear that the current insurgency was stifling progress in Iraq.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), South Carolina: Could you envision a democracy emerging in Iraq with this level of violence at the current state?

ADM. WILLIAM FALLON: Clearly, not much in the way of progress is going to occur with the current levels of violence and instability, but I think that we would probably be wise to temper our expectations here, that the likelihood that Iraq is suddenly going to turn into something that looks close to what we enjoy here in this country is going to be a long time coming.

Congress' role in the war debate

KWAME HOLMAN: Meanwhile, Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee examined the role of Congress in the war debate, something Illinois's Dick Durbin defended.

SEN. DICK DURBIN (D), Illinois: For those who argue that, for the United States Congress to engage in a bipartisan debate about our Constitution and our policy is somehow, quote, "emboldening" the enemy or undercutting our troops, they are wrong. This debate is evidence of what a democracy is all about.

KWAME HOLMAN: Members of both parties also are considering more definitive legislative options that would force the war's end, ranging from capping the number of troops permitted in Iraq to cutting off funding for troop deployments beyond a certain date.

Wisconsin Democrat Russ Feingold went as far as to say he would push for a bill that eventually would cut off funding for the deployment of forces in Iraq.

SEN. RUSS FEINGOLD (D), Wisconsin: The Constitution gives Congress the explicit power to declare war, to raise and support armies, to provide and maintain a Navy, and to make rules for the government and regulation of the land and naval forces.

KWAME HOLMAN: Meanwhile, senators from both parties continued to debate the efficacy of passing nonbinding resolutions opposed to the president's plan. Senator Biden and Virginia Republican John Warner both have offered measures that do just that.

But Warner's version includes differential language acknowledging the president's constitutional powers as commander-in-chief and allows for some additional troop deployment. However, neither resolution may have the support needed to pass, which would please the White House and its Senate allies, such as Arizona Republican Jon Kyl.

SEN. JON KYL (R), Arizona: The message that's sent to our troops is perhaps the most devastating, because it says, "We've sent you on a mission, and yet we don't believe in the mission. We're putting you in harm's way. You may, in fact, die trying to complete your mission, but it's not a mission that we believe in." Think about the message that that sends to the troops and to the families.

KWAME HOLMAN: But debate on the various resolutions is expected to begin next week.