WASHINGTON - As President Bush prepared to hit the road this week to bolster public support for his policies in Iraq, a senior Republican senator said Sunday that the United States needed to craft an exit strategy because its continued presence had created a potential Vietnam.
"We should start figuring out how we get out of there," Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska said on ABC's "This Week." "I think our involvement there has destabilized the Middle East. And the longer we stay there, I think the further destabilization will occur."
Hagel, the second-ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a prospective presidential candidate in 2008, was among several senators from both parties who used the Sunday talk shows to express mounting frustration over the administration's handling of the war and the occupation.
A decorated Vietnam veteran, Hagel has been critical of the Iraq war for some time. But his remarks Sunday, along with those of other lawmakers, appeared to mark a significant escalation in the scope and breadth of the criticism of Bush and his administration's handling of the Iraq effort, some analysts said.
"It seems that the ice is cracking in a bipartisan way in terms of congressional dissatisfaction with President Bush's policy in Iraq. The silence in terms of directly criticizing the administration's handling of Iraq — its mismanagement — has come to an end," said Marshall Wittmann, a senior fellow at the Democratic Leadership Council. Although his independent centrist organization is affiliated with the Democratic Party, Wittmann formerly served as a senior aide to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and in the administration of President George H.W. Bush.
He noted that some of those on Sunday's shows, such as Sens. Russell D. Feingold of Wisconsin and Carl Levin of Michigan, were Democrats who had frequently criticized the administration over Iraq, whereas others were staunch Republicans.
"The change now is that Republicans for the first time will assume oversight of the administration's policy," Wittmann said. "There is no more patience for happy talk from the administration."
In recent weeks, polls have shown a rising skepticism over Bush's handling of the war, which has claimed the lives of more than 1,860 U.S. troops and injured thousands more. In their comments Sunday, several lawmakers made note of the public's apparent unease, even as they differed over how long the U.S. should stay in Iraq and whether it should announce a tentative withdrawal date soon, as Feingold urged last week and reiterated Sunday.
Even those defending Bush tempered their support with expressions of concern about what they described as a disconnect between the administration and the public over the U.S. role in Iraq.
Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), the former majority leader, said that his constituents, despite their "very pro-military" feelings, were beginning to question whether the United States was doing enough to help establish an independent Iraqi government and make enough progress to allow troop withdrawals anytime soon.
"They still believe very strongly in President Bush," Lott said on NBC's "Meet the Press," citing recent conversations with frustrated constituents. "But they have a right to ask their elected officials, you know, 'What is the plan?' "
On Sunday, the White House said Bush would address such concerns in speeches this week, including one to a National Guard unit that has served in Iraq.
In response to the lawmakers' comments, White House spokeswoman Maria Tamburri said Sunday that Bush believed that "a free and democratic Iraq will help transform a dangerous region and lay the foundation of peace for our children and grandchildren."
"That is why it is so important for our troops to complete this important mission," she said. "Our policies of the past only allowed the Middle East to become a terrorist breeding ground. Quitting now wouldn't help anyone except terrorist killers who certainly aren't quitting their efforts to target innocent people."
Three GOP senators — Hagel, Lott and George Allen of Virginia — agreed that Washington couldn't simply pull out of Iraq and leave a vacuum that might further destabilize the Middle East.
Lott said an eventual withdrawal "should be based on conditions, not on a calendar," and Allen called it "absolutely essential that we win" in Iraq.
Hagel, however, said that it was the presence of U.S. troops in Iraq that was causing the destabilization, and that the administration needed to start articulating its long-range plans for withdrawal immediately or risk having Iraq become as politically costly as the Vietnam War.
"We are locked into a bogged-down problem not unsimilar or dissimilar to where we were in Vietnam. The longer we stay, the more problems we are going to have," Hagel said. He was particularly harsh in his criticism of Gen. Peter J. Schoomaker, the Army chief of staff, for saying in an Associated Press interview a day earlier that the Pentagon was making contingency plans for having more than 100,000 U.S. troops in Iraq through 2009.
Such plans, even if they are a worst-case and unlikely scenario, are "complete folly," Hagel said. "There's no way America is going to have 100,000 troops in Iraq, nor should it, in four years."
© 2005 Los Angeles Times