The two top Democratic leaders closed out their first week in control of Congress yesterday by putting President Bush on notice about Iraq.
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid wrote the president, telling him it would be a serious mistake to increase U.S. troop levels in Iraq — a pre-emptive strike that came just days before Mr. Bush is to unveil his new war strategy.
Last month, Reid said he was willing to take a look at the option of a troop surge in Iraq. Friday, he said he did take a look, and did not like what he saw:
"The surge is a bad idea," he said. "The president said he was going to listen to his commanders. If he's listening to his commanders, he can't do this. I know he's shuffling some in and out, obviously, because they're not telling him what he wants to hear... but what he needs to hear is the present situation in Iraq is deteriorating before our eyes and a surge will not help."
Both Gen. John Abizaid, who's being replaced as head of the U.S. Central Command, and top U.S. Iraq commander General George Casey, who's also being replaced, have publicly opposed a troop surge.
Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), who strongly supports such a surge, said Friday that opponents were yielding to "a bureaucratic mindset among military leaders," addding:
"I believe that a defeated army would be a very difficult challenge for us, far more than that one that is overstretched."
McCain also demanded that Democrats who oppose a troop surge explain what the U.S. strategy should be if Iraq falls into chaos.
President Bush met at the White House Friday with a group of senators from both parties who he hopes will support his new strategy. Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) said he and others expressed grave concerns to the president.
"I personally indicated that an escalation of troop levels in Iraq was a mistake and that we need a political accommodation, rather than a military approach to the sectarian violence there," Obama said. "Some shared my views. Others just indicated wariness or concern."
Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA), who was also there, said afterwards that Americans' patience with vagueness is wearing thin:
"So I indicated to the president that my support for any surge in troops would be dependent on the specificity in which it is delivered," she said.
But at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank that has pushed for a troop surge, now-independent Sen. Joseph Lieberman was chiding fellow lawmakers for not backing the president:
"This moment cries out for the kind of courageous leadership that does what can succeed and win in Iraq, not what will command the largest number of political supporters in Congress," Lieberman said. "The battlefield is in Baghdad and Anbar, not in Washington, and we need to support the president as he goes forward hopefully with exactly with that kind of new initiative in Iraq."
Can Congress stop a surge by cutting off funds for the war? Majority Leader Reid said Friday that is not in the cards:
"Whatever the soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen of this country need to protect them, they will get," Reid said.
In the end, that may be the one message from Congress that the president hears.