WASHINGTON — Some Senate Republicans are suddenly pushing the White House to begin withdrawing most U.S. troops from Iraq, apparently deciding that they can't wait for a September report to call for changing course.
A day after Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, the top Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, bluntly declared that President Bush's Iraq plan isn't working and called for withdrawing most American forces, Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, said he was writing Bush on Tuesday to urge him to embrace a Plan E (for exit).
Sens. John Warner, R-Va., and Susan Collins, R-Maine, said Lugar's comments would carry weight with fellow Republicans.
Democratic leaders held up Lugar's speech as a political victory for their views. While most Democratic lawmakers have supported withdrawal, most Republicans have stood behind Bush — although many have indicated that they may break with him if U.S. military leaders report in September that the outlook isn't improving. The unpopular four-year-old war, its failure to achieve positive results and the nearness of 2008 elections are putting heavy pressure on Republicans to back away from Bush's war.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said that when historians look back, "I believe that Senator Lugar's words yesterday could be remembered as the turning point. But that will depend on whether more Republicans will take the courageous first step that Senator Lugar took last night."
In his speech, however, Lugar pointedly urged members of both parties to cool their partisan rhetoric and work with Bush to change Iraq policy.
Both Lugar and Voinovich said Bush's Iraq strategy is undermining America's larger national-security interests and that now is the time to devise a better one.
Lugar warned that time is short.
Bipartisan agreement on "a rational course adjustment" would be nearly impossible if the debate takes place during the 2008 election for control of the White House and Congress, he said.
"Three factors — the political fragmentation in Iraq, the growing stress on our military and the constraints of our own domestic political process — are converging to make it almost impossible for the United States to engineer a stable, multi-sectarian government in Iraq in a reasonable time frame," Lugar said.
The veteran Indiana senator, who enjoys wide respect as a foreign-policy statesman who shuns partisan grandstanding, called on Bush to downsize the military's role in Iraq, moving some forces to Kuwait and other nearby countries. A smaller American force would remain in Iraq's Kurdish region or in defensible areas outside Iraqi cities. U.S. forces would continue to fight terrorists, train Iraqis and deliver economic aid, but would stop trying to end fighting among Iraqi factions.
Lugar also said the United States should support a gathering of regional countries to help solve Iraq's problems and take up broader concerns in the Middle East — including terrorism, Iran's rise and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
White House spokesman Tony Snow downplayed Lugar's comments, saying he already had been opposed to the surge.
"Obviously, Dick Lugar is giving what he thinks is his best advice, and we certainly appreciate it and take it seriously, but we also believe that it is very important to go ahead and let the surge, number one, finish getting put in place, and second, let's see what results it produces."
Snow said the White House didn't know about Lugar's speech in advance and that it got the White House's attention. "Dick Lugar is a serious guy, so obviously you take it seriously."
The White House called Lugar on Tuesday and planned to send an official over to talk with him later in the week.
Warner, an influential Republican on military affairs, called Lugar's speech "very helpful and constructive."
When the Senate starts to debate a defense policy bill soon after July 4th, "you'll be hearing a number of statements from other colleagues," said Warner, who opposed the surge but voted against a timeline for withdrawal.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who backs Bush's increase of forces in Iraq, said Lugar's conclusion was "premature."
"The enemy is still fighting. That doesn't mean we've failed. The troops have just gotten in place. I don't think it's quite fair to them," Graham said.
Still, Graham said Lugar was a "wonderful man" and so respected that his proposal would affect the debate. "I don't know how it will play out yet," he said.
For his part, Voinovich said he wants the Bush administration to emphasize diplomacy and aid rather than military power. His plan would leave some American forces in Iraq to train Iraqis and fight terrorists, but withdraw most others, and get other countries in the region involved in pressuring Iraqis to accept a decentralization plan and avoid a broader war.
"We're running out of time," he said. "If they are listening and they are moving forward with some of these initiatives, I think that we'll be patient. If they're not, I think many of us will talk about looking at legislation that will limit the number of troops that are there."
Voinovich rejected the Republican argument that Americans can't withdraw because al Qaida would win.
"That's nonsense," he said. Iraq's Shiite majority would reject any Sunni al Qaida effort to set up a religious government under a supreme leader, he said.
"All of us are frustrated," said Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas. She supports decentralization for Iraq and opposes a congressionally mandated withdrawal.
Collins, who opposed the surge, said Lugar's ideas "will carry weight with a lot of us." She said she hoped Democrats would resist the temptation to seize on Lugar's comments and advocate a quick withdrawal and instead see his speech as an invitation to craft legislation that moderate Republicans could support.
Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee and a Democratic presidential candidate, said on CNN that Lugar proposed what he and Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., have been calling for: "You need a fundamental change in strategy. Get out of the civil war. Train the Iraqi forces. Prevent al Qaida from occupying territory. Draw down troops immediately. You don't need 160,000 troops to do those missions. And move to bring the international community and the neighbors in."
Lugar's speech can be read on his Web site: lugar.senate.gov