WASHINGTON—As the U.S. death toll in Iraq rises and the insurrection there widens, the Bush administration faced increased skepticism Thursday on Capitol Hill, in world capitals and among military experts about the viability and wisdom of its Iraq policy.
Lawmakers from both parties have become increasingly uneasy about the president's vague plans to hand over limited sovereignty to a still-unidentified Iraqi government on June 30. Also troubling them is that the U.S. military appears unable to quell the growing insurrection in Iraq; 10 more U.S. soldiers were killed there Thursday as Marines reached a tentative deal to pull back from the insurgents' stronghold in Fallujah and to turn security for the city over to a former general in Saddam Hussein's army.
These developments, on the eve of the first anniversary of President Bush's dramatic landing last May 1 on an aircraft carrier to proclaim "Mission Accomplished," coincide with an erosion of public support for his policy there. One new national poll found the public evenly split over whether U.S. forces should stay in Iraq as long as it takes to restore stability, or to withdraw as soon as possible. Another poll found that a large majority of Iraqis is unhappy with foreign "occupiers" in their country.
"We have already failed," retired Lt. Gen. William Odom, a former director of the National Security Agency, said Thursday on NBC's "Today" show. "Staying in longer makes us fail worse ... I think we've passed the chances not to fail. And now we are in the situation where we have to limit the damage."
The troubles afflicting Bush's Iraq policy have emboldened Democrats and presidential candidate John Kerry, who's scheduled to give his third major speech on Iraq Friday at Westminster College in Fulton, Mo.
"In Iraq, failure is not an option," Kerry said during an appearance at the National Conference of Black Mayors Thursday in Philadelphia. "We know the mission is not accomplished—and it is time for a new plan."
Democratic Party discontent with the administration's Iraq policy intensified following an upbeat assessment of events there Tuesday by National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, speaking to House Democrats.
"When I hear the president speak about the post-war period in Iraq, it's clear to me that this administration did not know what it was getting into. What I heard today just reinforces that idea," House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Thursday. "They have no idea how to get out of it."
On the Senate floor, Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., said: "The failures of post-war Iraq lay squarely on the Bush administration for recklessly sending this country to war. A war that should not have been fought. A war in the wrong place, at the wrong time, for the wrong reasons."
Sen. Carl Levin, D.-Mich., put it this way: "The president lays down two alternatives, either cut and run or stay the course. That's a false choice. There is a third course: course corrections. Acknowledge where you made mistakes and correct the course because it is important that the world community succeed in Iraq."
White House officials dismiss such talk as partisan election-year talk from Democrats eager to paint Iraq as another Vietnam. But lately the administration has heard more dissenting Republican voices too, asking if it's realistic to return sovereignty 60 days from now to an Iraq that remains highly unstable.
The administration describes June 30 as the day that Iraqis gain sovereignty, but says that military decisions still would be left to the U.S.-led coalition forces, and Iraq's interim government would be not allowed to pass any laws.
"If a country doesn't have the sovereignty to make national security decisions for itself and military commitments, then I'm not sure I would define it as a sovereign government," Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., observed this week.
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, wondered Thursday how power could be transferred under current chaotic conditions.
"I don't see how we will be successful in transferring power to a still ill-defined Iraqi entity if the country is still experiencing so much violence and instability," said Collins, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
One U.S. military officer who's an expert in counterinsurgency and who recently returned from Iraq, is equally pessimistic.
"I came away thinking we are losing. I hadn't thought this on any previous trip to Iraq," said the officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity because it would be insubordination for him to challenge his civilian superiors. "My bet is that if we follow the prescription of a gradual but quick pullout, the Iraqi security forces that exist now would evaporate and be replaced by warring militias, which might be the inevitable outcome anyway."
Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, offered the restrained observation Thursday that the administration hasn't completely thought through its Iraq policy. Lugar said that current planning "is not necessarily adequate, but it is occurring."
Earlier this week, Lugar was more pointed: "Even if the decisions are correct, the diplomacy is deficient. By that I simply mean that not many people agree with us, or like us, or are prepared to work with us," Lugar told reporters. "That really will have to change. It starts with the president ... ."
Some U.S. allies, while pleased by Bush's new willingness to let the United Nations help shape the next interim Iraqi government, nevertheless worry that the White House isn't willing to cede real power.
"There is no possible solution that would lead to the reconstruction of Iraq without a genuine transfer of sovereignty under the effective control of the United Nations," French President Jacques Chirac said Thursday in Paris. "What would be disastrous would be a compromise solution based on an ambiguity along the lines of: `Right, the United Nations, you go and stand up the front,' but in fact nothing has changed and the coalition is really still in charge."
The Iraq turmoil is taking a toll on Bush in polls. A New York Times/CBS News poll found that only 47 percent of Americans now think it was right to have invaded Iraq, down from 58 percent last month and 63 percent in December, while 46 percent said the United States should have stayed out. And the nation split 46-46 percent over whether to stay until stability is achieved or to exit quickly.
Iraqis increasingly resent the U.S.-led presence. A USA Today/CNN/Gallup survey of Iraqis conducted in late March and early April found that 71 percent of them view U.S. forces as "occupiers," not "liberators."
These developments could open an opportunity for Kerry to define his alternative leadership on Iraq more clearly. He last gave a major address on Iraq five months ago.
Kerry has said he would seek a U.N. resolution to hand over nation-building duties to the United Nations under a U.N. "high commissioner." He would seek another U.N. resolution to authorize a multinational force, composed greatly of U.S. troops, but also including Arab soldiers, to stabilize the country and train Iraqis in security measures.
Democratic strategists say Kerry needs to speak more about Iraq.
" He needs to be clear and offer a simple plan of what he would do differently," said Donna Brazile, who managed Vice President Al Gore's 2000 presidential campaign. "Over the next two or three weeks, as we come to the June 30th deadline, John Kerry has to make a remark about Iraq every day. That is what is on the minds of the American people."
"The issue is whether people are losing confidence in Bush's ability to manage the situation," said Ivo Daalder, a former National Security Council staffer under President Clinton. "All Kerry has to do is convince the American public that he has a sense of how to get out of it."
Walter Russell Mead, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said Kerry is hemmed in politically.
"A lot of the Democratic base is incredibly angry about the war and Bush's policy," said Mead, author of the forthcoming book "Power, Terror, Peace and War: America's Grand Strategy in a World at Risk."
"Kerry courageously and correctly is sticking to the view that we're in the war and we can't get out. But what does he say to energize the base? If he doesn't distinguish himself enough from the president, Nader goes up in the polls. If he does too much, there's enough people to say, `Ah, the new McGovern.'"
(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent Tom Fitzgerald contributed to this report.)
(EDITORS: The New York Times poll cited in the 21st graf was taken Friday through Tuesday and had an error margin of plus or minus 3 percentage points. The USA Today/Gallup/CNN poll was taken in late March and early April and had an error margin of plus or minus 2 percentage points.)
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.