WASHINGTON - In a potentially significant setback to U.S. President George W. Bush's efforts to sustain Republican support for his "surge" in Iraq, three key senators this week have called on the White House to revise U.S. strategy there before September.
The defections, which were set off by a major policy address Monday on the floor of the Senate by the ranking Republican on the chamber's Foreign Relations Committee, Richard Lugar, suggest that patience for Bush's approach among his own party is fast running out.
They also coincided with a new poll released this week by Newsweek magazine which found that public approval of Bush's handling of Iraq has reached an all-time low of 23 percent.
The same poll found that Bush's general approval ratings have also reached an all-time low of 26 percent, near the post-World War II record set by Richard Nixon shortly before his resignation in 1974.
The White House has argued that lawmakers should not push for any change in U.S. policy before at least September. That is when Gen. David Petraeus and the U.S. ambassador in Baghdad, Ryan Crocker, are scheduled to present an evaluation of the effectiveness of the "surge" -- a counter-insurgency plan that since February has added 30,000 U.S. troops to the 135,000 already there in order to curb sectarian violence and encourage national reconciliation.
In recent weeks, both the Pentagon and the White House have appeared to retreat from that date, arguing that any assessment of the surge made in September was likely to be premature and thus suggesting that the current strategy be give more time.
Those suggestions may be precipitating what looks increasingly like a Republican revolt. Initiated by Lugar, it has been endorsed by Ohio Sen. George Voinovich and praised by Virginia Sen. John Warner, a key Republican leader on national security issues and former chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
"I hail what he did," Warner said Tuesday, adding that he expected a number of Republicans to endorse Lugar's position during the debate over the 2008 defence appropriations bill next month. His office indicated that he would likely offer a detailed amendment to the bill laying out a change of strategy. After the Jul. 4 recess, he said, "You'll be hearing a number of statements from other (Republican) colleagues."
Despite long-held reservations about the administration's policy in Iraq, Lugar, who served as the highly respected chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee before Democrats swept last November's elections, has consistently voted with the administration against Democratic efforts to set a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. combat forces, as have Warner and Voinovich.
While, in his speech, he rejected the option of a "total withdrawal" of U.S. forces from Iraq, Lugar stressed that a "tactical drawdown", coupled with a much greater focus on regional diplomacy, including a credible effort to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict, was an urgent necessity in light of the rapidly fading public support for Washington's continued engagement in Iraq.
And he warned in particular against any attempt by Bush to pursue the surge strategy through the end of his term, insisting that "such a course contains extreme risks for U.S. national security (because)... it would greatly increase the chances for a poorly planned withdrawal from Iraq or possibly the broader Middle East region that could damage U.S. interests for decades."
"(I)t is certain that domestic pressure for withdrawal will continue to be intense," he said. "A course change should happen now, while there is still some possibility or constructing a sustainable bipartisan strategy in Iraq... In short, our political timeline will not support a rational course adjustment in Iraq, unless such an adjustment is initiated very soon."
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Lugar essentially endorsed key elements of the Iraq Study Group (ISG), the bipartisan, Congressionally-appointed task force chaired by former Secretary of State James Baker and former Democratic Rep. Lee Hamilton that last December issued a detailed report outlining recommendations for withdrawing U.S. combat forces by April 2008.
The ISG also recommended a diplomatic offensive featuring engagement with all of Iraq's neighbours, including Iran and Syria, and intensified efforts to bring about an Israeli-Arab peace accord.
Lugar called the ISG report a "template for bipartisan cooperation on our Iraq strategy."
He cited three factors for his conclusion that "the costs and risks of continuing down the current path outweigh the potential benefits that might be achieved."
"First," he said, even if U.S. forces succeed in reducing the violence, "it is very doubtful that the leaders of Iraqi factions are capable of implementing a political settlement in the short run," he said. "American strategy must adjust to the reality that sectarian factionalism will not abate any time soon and probably cannot be controlled from the top."
The second factor working against U.S. aims "is the fatigue of our military," he said, citing declines in readiness and recruitment standards that have resulted from the Iraq war.
Finally, the public's patience for Washington's military commitment is fast running out. "The President and his team must come to grips with the shortened political timeline in this country for military operations in Iraq," he said. "(O)ur political timeline will not support a rational course adjustment in Iraq, unless such an adjustment is initiated very soon."
Moreover, he said, the administration's fixation on "artificial notions of achieving victory or avoiding defeat" in Iraq risks broader U.S. interests in the region. He called for Washington to focus on meeting four "primary objectives" -- preventing Iraq or part of its territory from being used as a safe haven for terrorists; preventing the violence there from destabilising the region; preventing Iran from dominating the region; and limiting the loss of U.S. credibility in the region.
At the same time, a total withdrawal also would not serve the same U.S. interests, if only because it would enhance the likelihood of a wider regional conflict and damage U.S. credibility with its allies in the region, he said, calling instead for a "downsizing and re-deployment of U.S. military forces to more sustainable position in Iraq or the Middle East," possibly including Kurdistan or nearby states from which Washington could respond to "terrorist threats, protect oil flows, and help deter a regional war."
Democrats hailed Lugar's speech, noting that it could become a turning point in the stand-off between the administration and their party, particularly if Lugar helps bring along other key Republicans, notably Warner, who has been quietly expressing doubts about the surge since it was initiated.
"Whether or not the White House is listening, Sen. Lugar's statement is already sending shock waves through Capitol Hill," noted Jim Cason, an analyst at the Friends Committee on National Legislation, an anti-war lobby.
"His statement creates political space for other Republicans to come out more publicly calling for a change in policy in Iraq based on the ISG's recommendations."
© 2007 Inter Press Service