President Bush appropriately was center stage for the delivery of the latest State of the Union address, but he was quickly upstaged in regard to Iraq policy by other leaders.

In our video age, the visible Nancy Pelosi, just behind the presidential podium during the speech, has been much noted in immediate media commentary. Nothing inappropriate there; she is the first female to keep an eye on a president from that position. She also personifies the return of Democrats to congressional majorities.

The speech emphasized foreign policy. Speaker Pelosi did not respond formally for the Democrats, nor is she generally viewed as an international expert. Rather, three male voices, from different perspectives, have effectively critiqued Bush Iraq policy.

Immediately after the State of the Union, remarks by Lt. Gen. David Petraeus, Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., and Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., have drawn considerable attention and had great impact in ways that undercut the Iraq stance of the administration.

As critical media were quick to emphasize, Congress collectively did not respond with great applause when sending more forces to Iraq was reiterated in the speech. The loaded word “escalation,” reminiscent of limited measures in the Vietnam War, has been used by critics, and rightly rejected by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

As in the past, Bush equated fighting in Iraq to the struggle against international terrorism. He seemed defiant in reminding legislators that many of them had supported the invasion of Iraq and that the American people had not voted for “failure.” In reality, White House intelligence was wrong and now historical hatreds rooted in religion have exploded. In this context, a belligerent Bush bashing al Qaeda appears self-serving, unrealistic or both.

Petraeus, by contrast, appeared realistic in testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee. He described the situation in Iraq as “dire” and that success will be “neither quick nor easy.” The unanimous confirmation vote by the Senate reflects his political skill as well as professional standing; Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., a leading war critic, made his affirmative-vote intentions known well in advance.

Hagel, a Republican and Vietnam War combat veteran, joined Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in carrying, by a 12-9 vote, a resolution against increasing troops in Iraq. Hagel, who tangled with Rice in recent hearings, has been increasingly outspoken in condemning the war. He referred to sending young men and women into a “grinder.” That term, like “escalation,” recalls Vietnam.

Webb, previously a Republican who served in the Pentagon under President Ronald Reagan, is also a Vietnam veteran. In a brilliant Democratic response to the State of the Union address, he evoked two Republican presidents, describing the reforming zeal of Theodore Roosevelt and the national-security skills of Dwight Eisenhower. He accused Bush of departing disastrously from this party history.

Polls show that Democrats now lead Republicans with the public in every policy area except national security. For Democratic leaders to defer to a newcomer such as Webb to make the rejoinder implies keen awareness of this reality.

Democrats, however, remain a long way from regaining the White House. On Iraq, most of the telling criticism is coming from outside that party.

(Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College in Wisconsin and author of “After the Cold War” (NYU Press and Palgrave/Macmillan). He can be reached at acyr(at)

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