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Senate Republicans are growing increasingly nervous defending the war in Iraq, and Democrats more confident in their attempts to end it.
More than a year before the 2008 elections, it is a political role reversal that bodes ill for President Bush’s war strategy, not to mention his recent statement that Congress’ role should merely be “funding the troops.”
Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, made that clear Friday when he dismissed any suggestion that it could be November before a verdict is possible on the effects of the administration’s current troop increase.
“September is the month we’re looking at,” he said unequivocally.
Yet as the party leader, McConnell is more circumspect than many Republicans in his characterization of the administration’s war strategy. Asked earlier in the week whether he agreed that the conflict had been badly mismanaged — as Sen. John McCain has said for months — McConnell declined to respond.
Not so Sen. Christopher Bond, R-Mo.
“The strategy we had before was not the right strategy,” he told reporters at midweek. “We should have had a counterinsurgency strategy.”
By his remarks, Bond made it clear he meant the strategy was wrong from the time Saddam Hussein was deposed until this past January, when Gen. David Petraeus was installed as top military commander. That’s a span of nearly four years.
Asked who bore responsibility for the error, Bond said, “Ultimately, obviously, the president.”
Should any blame fall on Congress — under Republican control the entire time?
“Congress was not running the war,” Bond replied.
It is not only the mood that is changing among Republicans. So, too, the rhetoric.
“Cut and run,” has largely come and gone as an insult to hurl at Democrats, as Republicans themselves contemplate a change in course.
It also is the mission they envision changing as they try to salvage what they can from a war that has taken the lives of more than 3,600 U.S. troops and cost more than $400 billion.
Their once-clear vision of Iraq as a stable, self-sustaining democracy is faded.
“Today’s mission is focused on al-Qaida,” said Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., reflecting what other administration allies in Congress say privately.
In this view, the main U.S. military focus should be on preventing Iraq from falling under terrorist control. One Republican senator, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the shift in talk of a military objective was a prelude to a change to a strategy that would pull U.S. troops back from a civil war between Sunni and Shiites.
But focusing attention on al-Qaida raises familiar questions: Were terrorists present in Iraq before the 2003 invasion and what would happen if U.S. forces departed?
According to several officials, Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, and McCain engaged in a brief, impromptu debate touching on that point recently at a private meeting of the rank and file.
Voinovich said the Sunni and Shiites in Iraq would together drive al-Qaida from their country if the U.S. were not there. McCain took the opposite view. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity, noting that the meeting was private.
If Republicans struggling to regroup — with or without the president they have followed through four years of war — Democrats are on the march.
“Time and the American people are … on our side,” Sen. Harry Reid, the majority leader, said last week. The Nevada Democrat spoke in defeat, after Republicans — whatever their private misgivings — blocked a final vote on a troop withdrawal deadline.
Only four of 49 Republican senators defected in last week’s showdown. The group did not include Sens. John Warner of Virginia, Richard Lugar of Indiana, Pete Domenici of New Mexico and other senior lawmakers who are seeking a change in course.
Many of the most nervous Republicans are seeking re-election in 2008, and it was a measure of the Democrats’ political confidence that Reid abruptly halted debate on the war once the troop withdrawal measure was scuttled.
Several officials said he did not want any of several Republican or bipartisan alternatives to come to a vote. His objective was to deny a political escape hatch to any GOP senator who would not support the Democratic withdrawal measure. These officials spoke on condition of anonymity, saying they were not authorized to discuss strategy.
It was only 13 months — and one election — ago that Reid was the one hoping to avoid a vote on a troop withdrawal. Then, Sens. John Kerry, D-Mass., and Russell Feingold, D-Wis., angered Reid by insisting on a vote on a fixed withdrawal deadline of July 1, 2007.
Democratic strategists fretted about the impact on senators seeking re-election and challengers to Republicans in swing states.
The plan drew the support of 13 Democrats. Reid was not among them, nor were the Democratic presidential contenders currently clamoring for the support of anti-war voters.
The public, it turned out, was more unhappy about the war than the Democratic strategists understood. Despite their tentativeness, Democrats won control of the House and Senate in an election in which Iraq played a large role.
“Now it’s the unified Democratic position,” Kerry correctly e-mailed his supporters last week.
“In May, Republicans were dismissing even tough questions about the escalation. Now, they’re falling all over themselves to distance themselves from the president.”
David Espo is AP’s chief congressional correspondent