WASHINGTON—All during the 2004 presidential campaign, Democrats tried to find their voice on the war in Iraq without much success. But even with President Bush's re-election and Iraq's recent vote now over, the nation's opposition party still can't unite behind a single stance.
Some Democrats, led by Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, have called for a quick reduction of troops in Iraq and a near-total withdrawal within a year. Others, such as Rep. Ike Skelton of Missouri, are pressing Bush to spell out an exit strategy. Still others, such as vanquished Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, are seeking to beef up the military, saying that the war against terrorism isn't going away.
"In the long haul," Kerry said in an interview, "we are living in a dangerous world and I think we need to be prepared to manage this in a more effective way."
Nothing better illustrates the party's mixed message on the war than its current leadership. Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic leader in the House of Representatives, has been a staunch war critic from the start. Sen. Harry Reid, the new Senate Democratic leader from Nevada, supported the war. The new Democratic Party chairman, Howard Dean, rose to national prominence as the anti-war presidential candidate, but as he accepted his new post, the only policy question he ducked was one on Iraq.
To be sure, some senior Republicans, such as Sens. Richard Lugar of Indiana and Charles Hagel of Nebraska, also have questioned Bush's policy on Iraq, but lately they've praised the administration for making more overtures for help from Europeans.
The Democrats' problem is easy to understand. November's election results chastened many, forcing them to rethink whether the war was the place to take a stand against Republicans. Many House Democrats come from districts with staunch anti-war constituencies and feel a need to sustain opposition. Yet others, particularly in the Senate, harbor presidential ambitions and don't want to stake out a position now that could label them as being weak on national security in 2008.
Besides, most recognize that choices now are limited.
Walter Russell Mead, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said Bush has effectively imposed his foreign policy on both parties.
"By already having U.S. troops in Iraq, essentially the election last fall was irrelevant to what would happen. We have to win," he said. "If you don't like it you can say, `That's irresponsible, that's driving me crazy.' But it doesn't change the fact that it is very, very difficult to come up with an analytically serious alternative to what we're currently doing in Iraq."
No less a Bush critic than Kerry said that while he still believes the administration moved too slowly to seek allied help, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's recent trip to Europe is a hopeful sign.
"They're talking about it. They're starting to create a reality base," Kerry said. "I think it's the right thing to do. I welcome it."
Kerry is renewing a proposal from his presidential campaign that Congress pay for 40,000 additional troops—30,000 for the Army and 10,000 Marines—to ease the strain on the U.S. military. Kerry said the additional troops aren't meant for Iraq. He also is calling for more benefits for military families and greater incentives to attract young people to military service.
Other Democrats argue that withdrawing troops from Iraq would ease the pressure on the military and free forces for other duties. Last month, 24 House members filed a resolution calling on Bush to initiate an immediate withdrawal of troops. Kennedy, a veteran leader of the party's liberal wing, said in a speech a few weeks ago that the United States should withdraw at least 12,000 troops "at once" and aim for complete withdrawal in early 2006.
Kennedy softened that position at a hearing Thursday, asking Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld: "Why not set goals—not a hard and fast timetable—for the future of our presence in Iraq?"
Kerry, together with Reid and Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware, the senior Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, says U.S. troops need to stay in Iraq long enough to train Iraqis to secure the country themselves.
Others, such as Skelton, the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, reject talk of withdrawal but are demanding that the administration spell out a "strategy for success."
"Iraq has become a come-one, come-all operation for terrorists," Skelton said. "If we don't win there, it could be the tipping point for the Persian Gulf for many, many years."
The Bush administration's $82 billion request for emergency funds mostly for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan has prompted Democratic complaints that Bush hasn't gotten more money from European allies. But the toughest questions on spending have come from Republicans, including House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, who said last week that some of the administration's requests "probably don't qualify as emergencies."
As they struggle with Iraq, Democrats are also beginning to frame their positions on other foreign policy fronts, particularly Iran and Syria. The Bush administration has accused Tehran of wanting to develop nuclear weapons and stepped up criticism of Syria's presence in Lebanon.
Some Democrats, such as Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia, accuse the Bush administration of warmongering.
"My concern is that the administration is leading us down the same path once again with respect to Iran and Syria, substituting saber rattling for negotiations and just maybe allowing armed conflict to trump diplomacy," Byrd told Rice at a hearing last Thursday.
"Will they be able to get a Democratic position on this or will they splinter again?" Mead asked. "For the Democrats, you have to kind of write off Iraq; it's been a disaster for them. Opposing it didn't help them; supporting it didn't help them. ... What are they doing to make sure they don't have the same problems on Iran?"
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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