Under the plan disclosed by Bush administration officials, the military would pull out some 5,700 soldiers by the end of 2007. Defense officials hoped to draw down troop levels by a total of 21,000 by the summer of 2008 to 130,000 soldiers — a number roughly equal to those stationed in Iraq before the surge in strength ordered in January of this year. The president cautioned, however, that any reduction would be tied to clear progress in the security situation on the ground.
“The principle guiding my decisions on troop levels in Iraq is: return on success,” President Bush said during a primetime address from the White House. “The more successful we are, the more American troops can return home.”
The decision to largely continue the current policy in Iraq set the stage for a political battle with Democrats in Congress, who have increasingly called for a swifter and complete withdrawal.
Delivering the Democratic response, former Army Ranger Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., blasted President Bush, saying “once again, the president failed to provide either a plan to successfully end the war or a convincing rationale to continue it.”
Sounding an ominous note for the political debate set to begin, Reed added Democrats would work to “profoundly change our military involvement in Iraq.”
Despite the strong words from Democratic opponents, President Bush reiterated his support for a continued relationship with the faltering Iraqi government.
Mr. Bush once again said the U.S. involvement in the region would stretch beyond his presidency, requiring military, financial and political support well past January 2009. He said Iraqi leaders “have asked for an enduring relationship with America.
“And we are ready to begin building that relationship in a way that protects our interests in the region and requires many fewer American troops.”
He also attempted to reach out to those politically opposed to him, saying his new policy could be something all support.
“Whatever political party you belong to, whatever your position on Iraq, we should be able to agree that America has a vital interest in preventing chaos and providing hope in the Middle East,” the president said.
He added, “Let us come together on a policy of strength in the Middle East.”
But Democrats remained deeply skeptical of the president’s plan, saying it offered no clear end to military involvement in Iraq.
“The American people long ago lost faith in the president’s leadership of the war in Iraq because his rhetoric has never matched the reality on the ground,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said before the speech. “The choice is between a Democratic plan for responsible redeployment and the president’s plan for an endless war in Iraq.”
The apparent political collision course comes after two days of intense questioning by Congress of the top military commander and ambassador to Iraq. Both Gen. David Petraeus and Amb. Ryan Crocker said they were struck by the depth of public and Congressional skepticism.
“[T]here’s certainly an intensity to the impatience and the frustration that was very, very palpable. I tried to lay out the situation on the ground,” Petraeus told Jim Lehrer Wednesday evening. “And it is very clear the enormous desire for results. And, again, you can feel that from afar; you can feel it in Baghdad. But you obviously feel it a great deal more in Washington and on Capitol Hill.”
But some Republican leaders said the president’s address and the Petraeus and Crocker report offered tangible proof of progress in Iraq.
The president’s plan “meets a demand many of my members have been looking for, which is some sign of success that can allow us to reduce our forces in the near future,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said. “I think we’ve turned the corner in Iraq and are heading into a new place, and the president’s remarks tonight were certainly encouraging in that respect.”
Beyond the halls of Congress and the Pentagon, the clash between the president and Congressional Democrats also echoed on the campaign trail. Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, who has taken political heat for his continued support of the president’s policy, hailed the address, saying it reaffirmed his support for the troop surge.
“[W]ithout him, there would have been no surge,” longtime McCain supporter Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told the Associated Press. “Now John is center-stage next week beating back political efforts to undercut the surge. He will be standing with generals in the field against would-be political generals.”
Democratic candidates have called for a much larger withdrawal of American forces, Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., saying all forces should be pulled out by the end of 2008.
“Let me be clear: there is no military solution in Iraq, and there never was,” Obama said. “The best way to protect our security and to pressure Iraq’s leaders to resolve their civil war is to immediately begin to remove our combat troops. Not in six months or one year — now.”