WASHINGTON — The outgoing top U.S. general in Iraq diplomatically aired his differences with the commander in chief on Thursday, telling lawmakers that President Bush has ordered thousands more troops into Iraq than needed to tame down violence in Baghdad.
Gen. George Casey quickly added he understood how his recently confirmed successor, Lt. Gen. David Petraeus, could want the full complement of 21,500 additional troops that Bush has ordered to Iraq. Casey said they could “either reinforce success, maintain momentum or put more forces in a place where the plans are not working.”
As the general spoke at a confirmation hearing into his nomination to become Army chief of staff, the full Senate lurched toward a widely anticipated debate on the administration’s policy, the first since midterm elections in which public opposition to the war helped install a new Democratic majority.
One day after critics of Bush’s revised war strategy merged two competing Senate measures, the White House worked to hold down the number of GOP defections while two liberal Democrats attacked the compromise as too weak. An early test vote on the issue is tentatively set for Monday.
“It is essentially an endorsement of the status quo, an endorsement I simply cannot make in light of the dire circumstances in Iraq and the need for meaningful action now,” said Sen. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut, who is seeking the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination.
Sharp words from McCain
Casey endured occasional sharp criticism as he appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
“I do not in any way question your honor, your patriotism or your service to our country, I do question some of the decisions and judgments you have made over the past two and a half years as commander of Multi-National Forces in Iraq,” said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. “During that time, things have gotten markedly and progressively worse, and the situation in Iraq can now best be described as dire and deteriorating.”
So far, no senators have announced plans to oppose Casey’s elevation to chief of staff, although McCain, as well as Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. and Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., said they were undecided how to vote.
In the peculiar politics surrounding the Iraq war, the three lawmakers are among the strongest critics of the nonbinding legislation. It would criticize the president’s decision to increase troop levels as a way of stabilizing Baghdad nearly four years after Saddam Hussein was forced from power.
They said they intend to advance an alternative measure setting out the goals that should be met by the Iraqi government, and pledging whatever resources Petraeus requests. “We’ve come to the conclusion that the Petraeus strategy ... to buy some time for political reconciliation is our best chance for victory,” said Graham.
Critics of the war, including most Senate Democrats and several Republicans, appeared to be coalescing around a revised measure advanced by Sen. John Warner, R-Va., and a group of lawmakers of both parties. It says the Senate “disagrees with the ‘plan’ to augment our forces by 21,500, and urges the president instead to consider all options and alternatives.”
Many Democrats had been supporters of a stronger measure, one declaring that Bush’s plan for more troops was “not in the national interest.”
That criticism was jettisoned Wednesday night as Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada maneuvered to pick up Republican votes. Additionally, the new measure says Congress “should not take any action that will endanger United States military forces in the field, including the elimination or reduction of funds for troops in the field,” a provision that Republicans said was designed to outflank Democrats eager to rein in Bush’s policy.
More chances to vote to come?
Several officials said Reid told a closed-door caucus during the day that lawmakers would have an opportunity to vote for binding restrictions on Bush’s war policy in the coming months.
“For me it was a reassurance” that the Senate’s hands would not be tied to end the war but troops would still be protected, said James Webb, a Virginia Democrat elected last fall as a critic of the war.
Two veteran liberals, Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., and presidential hopeful Joseph Biden, D-Del., were among Democrats who said they were ready to accept the watered-down nonbinding measure as a first step.
Not so Dodd and Sen. Russell Feingold.
Feingold, D-Wis., issued a statement saying the measure “misunderstands the situation in Iraq and shortchanges our national security interests. The resolution rejects redeploying U.S. troops and supports moving a misguided military strategy from one part of Iraq to another.”
Two other presidential hopefuls, Sens. Barack Obama of Illinois and Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, said they were undecided on whether to support the measure. Both favor binding legislation to force a change in policy toward Iraq.
Separately, the Congressional Budget Office said Bush’s plans would cost $9 billion to $14 billion for a four-month deployment, depending on the number of support troops required. It said that based on experience, each 4,000-troop combat brigade would be accompanied by 5,500 support personnel — 28,000 more than Bush is sending. A Pentagon spokesman, Paul Boyce, dismissed the estimate as too high, but he declined to offer his own estimate.
Unusual moment in presidential history
Casey’s comments marked a rarity, a four-star general pulling back the veil on high-level differences expressed in advance of a presidential decision.
The White House seemed unperturbed. “What General Casey was talking about is some suggestions he’d made earlier. The president has made his decision, and it does reflect the wisdom of a number of combatant commanders and it does have the assent of General Casey,” said presidential spokesman Tony Snow.
The remarks drew skepticism in Congress, though.
“I’m not certain five additional brigades in Baghdad and one more in Anbar province are sufficient to do the job,” said McCain. “I am certain, however, that the job cannot be done with just two additional brigades, as you, General Casey, had advocated.”
At his own confirmation hearing last month, Petraeus testified that he wanted all 21,500 troops moved “as rapidly as possible” into Iraq.
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