WASHINGTON — A leading Republican senator and prospective presidential candidate said Sunday that the war in Iraq has destabilized the Middle East and is looking more like the Vietnam conflict from a generation ago.
Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel, who received two Purple Hearts and other military honors for his service in Vietnam, reiterated his position that the United States needs to develop a strategy to leave Iraq.
Hagel scoffed at the idea that U.S. troops could be in Iraq four years from now at levels above 100,000, a contingency for which the Pentagon is preparing.
“We should start figuring out how we get out of there,” Hagel said on “This Week” on ABC. “But with this understanding, we cannot leave a vacuum that further destabilizes the Middle East. I think our involvement there has destabilized the Middle East. And the longer we stay there, I think the further destabilization will occur.”
Hagel said “stay the course” is not a policy. “By any standard, when you analyze 2 1/2 years in Iraq ... we’re not winning,” he said.
White House rebuttal
The White House rejected Hagel’s remarks and said it was essential the United States complete its mission in Iraq.
“The president knows a free and democratic Iraq will help transform a dangerous region and lay the foundation of peace for our children and grandchildren,” White House spokesman Trent Duffy said in Crawford, Texas.
“Our policies of the past only allowed the Middle East to become a terrorist breeding ground,” he said. “Quitting now wouldn’t help anyone except terrorist killers, who certainly aren’t quitting their efforts to target innocent people.”
President Bush was preparing for separate speeches this week where he will invoke the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to contend that the United States must stay the course in Iraq and reaffirm his plan to help Iraq train its security forces while its leaders build a democratic government. In his weekly Saturday radio address, Bush said the fighting there protected Americans at home.
Polls show the public growing more skeptical about Bush’s handling of the war.
In Iraq, officials continued to craft a new constitution in the face of a Monday night deadline for parliamentary approval. They missed the initial deadline last week.
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Other Republican senators appearing on Sunday news shows advocated remaining in Iraq until the mission set by Bush is completed, but they also noted that the public is becoming more and more concerned and needs to be reassured.
Sen. George Allen, R-Va., another possible candidate for president in 2008, disagreed that the U.S. is losing in Iraq. He said a constitution guaranteeing basic freedoms would provide a rallying point for Iraqis.
Allen: ‘A very crucial time’
“I think this is a very crucial time for the future of Iraq,” said Allen, also on ABC. “The terrorists don’t have anything to win the hearts and minds of the people of Iraq. All they care to do is disrupt.”
Hagel, who was among those who advocated sending two to three times as many troops to Iraq when the war began in March 2003, said a stronger military presence by the U.S. is not the solution today.
“We’re past that stage now because now we are locked into a bogged-down problem not unsimilar, dissimilar to where we were in Vietnam,” Hagel said. “The longer we stay, the more problems we’re going to have.”
Allen said that unlike the communist-guided North Vietnamese who fought the U.S., the insurgents in Iraq have no guiding political philosophy or organization. Still, Hagel argued, the similarities are growing.
‘The dam has broke’
“What I think the White House does not yet understand — and some of my colleagues — the dam has broke on this policy,” Hagel said. “The longer we stay there, the more similarities (to Vietnam) are going to come together.”
The Army’s top general, Gen. Peter Schoomaker, said Saturday in an interview with The Associated Press that the Army is planning for the possibility of keeping the current number of soldiers in Iraq — well over 100,000 — for four more years as part of preparations for a worst-case scenario.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, said U.S. security is tied to success in Iraq, and he counseled people to be patient.
“The worst-case scenario is not staying four years. The worst-case scenario is leaving a dysfunctional, repressive government behind that becomes part of the problem in the war on terror and not the solution,” Graham said on “Fox News Sunday.”
Allen said the military would be strained at such levels in four years yet could handle that difficult assignment. Hagel described the Army contingency plan as “complete folly.”
“I don’t know where he’s going to get these troops,” Hagel said. “There won’t be any National Guard left ... no Army Reserve left ... there is no way America is going to have 100,000 troops in Iraq, nor should it, in four years.”
Hagel added: “It would bog us down, it would further destabilize the Middle East, it would give Iran more influence, it would hurt Israel, it would put our allies over there in Saudi Arabia and Jordan in a terrible position. It won’t be four years. We need to be out.”
Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., said the U.S. is winning in Iraq but has “a way to go” before it meets its goals there. Meanwhile, more needs to be done to lay out the strategy, Lott said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
“I do think we, the president, all of us need to do a better job, do more,” Lott said, by telling people “why we have made this commitment, what is being done now, what we do expect in the process and, yes, why it’s going to take more time.”
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.