Debate on Iraq Doesn't Hurt Morale, Leaders Say
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
On Capitol Hill, Democratic leaders of the House of Representatives are busy drafting a resolution they say will show public disapproval for the war in Iraq, and the president's proposed troop buildup. For weeks, Republicans have maintained that such a move would undermine troop morale. Today, top Pentagon leaders said that is not the case.
NPR's Andrea Seabrook reports.
ANDREA SEABROOK: The House Armed Services Committee room was packed. Two guests faced the rows of lawmakers. They were Defense Secretary Robert Gates and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Peter Pace. While the TV and still cameras crowded in, the chairman of the committee, Ike Skelton, allowed all the members of the committee with the least seniority to ask their questions first, perhaps a tip of the hat to the wave of new Democratic lawmakers elected last fall.
They were elected in large part because of public opposition to the war in Iraq. And the freshmen reflected that. For example, Georgia Democrat Hank Johnson.
Representative HANK JOHNSON (Democrat, Georgia): We have a House that's burning. And we put gasoline on it by sending more troops to Iraq when what we need to be doing is trying to put out that fire.
SEABROOK: This new sentiment was echoed by most of the new Democrats and many of the more senior ones. But most of the Republicans followed the lead of their ranking member on the committee, Duncan Hunter of California.
Representative DUNCAN HUNTER (Republican, California): And I think it will be a major mistake for us to send a fractured message to the world, to our allies, and our adversaries that the United States is heavily divided over the support of this mission.
SEABROOK: This idea that it would undermine the troops and aid U.S. enemies is central, not only to congressional Republicans' arguments, but to the White House. Most recently, Vice President Cheney has made this argument, as has President Bush and former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. But today, it seemed, that argument was finally put down, both by civilian and uniformed leaders of the military. Here's Defense Secretary Gates.
Secretary ROBERT GATES (Department of Defense): As a truism from the beginning of time and the time the first Neanderthal picked up a club, you try to see whether your enemies are divided or not, all I would say is that history is littered with examples of people who underestimated robust debate in Washington, D.C. for weakness on the part of America.
SEABROOK: Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Peter Pace was even clearer.
General PETER PACE (Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff, U.S. Army): There's no doubt in my mind that the dialogue here in Washington strengthens our democracy. Period.
SEABROOK: Pace said enemies may watch and take comfort in the debate in Congress, but they have little understanding of democracy, he said. And as far as the support of U.S. troops, said Pace -
General PACE: They understand how our legislature works. And they understand that there's going to be this kind of debate, but they're going to be looking to see whether or not they are supported in the realm of mission given and resources provided.
SEABROOK: There were also troops on Capitol Hill today, former soldiers now lobbying against the surge. They made their way from office to office, finally paying a visit to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. John Sults(ph) runs this group of veterans.
Mr. JOHN SULTS (Former Soldier): We're the troops, we're here. We are the troops. We're sitting next to leader Pelosi, because they don't support the troops.
SEABROOK: They, in this case, is the Republicans, says Sults.
Mr. SULTS: If you all want to talk about not supporting the troops, go over to the Republican side ask them how to vote against body, armor instead, not once, but twice in 2003. That's not supporting troops. If you support escalation, you don't support the troops. Twenty thousand more troops in Baghdad is a backdoor timeline. It is like spitting in the ocean. It will not make a difference. We need a new strategy in Iraq.
SEABROOK: Speaker Pelosi stopped short of agreeing with Sults that voting for the surge is now a vote against the troops. But she said she hopes today's push at least changes President Bush's perspective.
Representative NANCY PELOSI (Speaker of the House, Democrat, California): Well hopefully, as the voice of the American people is expressed through the Congress, we'll have some impact on the president of the United States as he makes his decision. It's no small thing that a majority of the Congress in a bipartisan way disapproves of the president going forward with this surge.
SEABROOK: And Democrats are hoping to do much more than just officially disapprove of the war. Defense Appropriations chairman Jack Murtha said today he is combing every line of President Bush's war budget request for ways to force the president to change his policy. Andrea Seabrook, NPR News, The Capitol.