WASHINGTON – Rep. John Murtha, the Vietnam War veteran now leading opposition to the Bush administration's "victory plans" in Iraq, said Wednesday that President Bush has failed to prepare the U.S. military adequately for a sustained war.
Using Bush's Wednesday speech in Washington, D.C., as a launching point, Murtha, D-Pa. said, "You've got to believe President Reagan is turning over in his grave."
"The Army is broken," said Murtha, whose November call for an immediate drawdown of troops in Iraq reignited the debate and highlighted partisan rifts over war spending and policy. Murtha originally voted to authorize action in Iraq and as a decorated veteran and ranking Democrat of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense is considered one of the more hawkish Democratic members of Congress.
Murtha said that the Army is at its lowest troop level since 1941, and continues to suffer from a lack of equipment. He said that while Reagan made efforts to ramp up the Armed Forces, he fears that once the war is over the government will fail the military again.
"The minute this confrontation in Iraq is over, they'll start to reduce the money for the military. We won't be able to rehabilitate the military — as President Reagan had to do," he said.
Murtha also said Bush "continues to mischaracterize" the link between terrorism and the insurgency, adding that he does not believe a connection exists among the attacks on the USS Cole, Sept. 11, 2001, the embassy attacks in Africa and the insurgency in Iraq.
Bush spoke at the Woodrow Wilson Center, giving his fourth speech in recent weeks detailing his National Strategy for Victory in Iraq, a 35-page plan released by the White House in an effort to describe the political, military and economic plans to defeat terrorists in Iraq and promote a strong democracy there. The speech is the last before Iraqis go to the polls to pick a 275-page document.
Weekly Standard Editor Bill Kristol, a FOX News contributor, said he thinks the speeches have shown the American people that the president is involved, which explains why polls are responding.
“People said a month ago the president has lost his credibility. The fact is, he’s still the president. He makes his speeches pretty convincingly. … I’m told by congressman and others who have seen him recently that he’s personally very engaged in this. He obviously believes deeply in it. He’s very much up to speed on what’s going on on the ground,” Kristol told FOX News.
But opponents of President Bush’s strategy showed no sign Wednesday of letting up in their demands for more details on how the president plans to measure success and then get U.S. troops out of the emerging Mideast democracy.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Sens. Carl Levin of Michigan and Jack Reed of Rhode Island, said during a press conference ahead of the president's remarks that Bush must call on Iraq to “put their political house in order,” a subject they said the president has not yet adequately addressed.
“I regret that the president is 0 for 3 in his last three speeches. He hasn’t leveled with the American people or laid out his strategy for success. He continues to say, ‘stay the course.’ He continues to say we’re winning, but based on his three speeches, if this were a baseball game, he would already be struck out,” said Reid of Nevada.
“In order to support the mission, the American people need to know the remaining political, economic and military benchmarks, and they need a reasonable schedule for achieving them,” Reid continued.
Levin said the president’s last speech on Monday set the wrong tone for the Iraqi people. Quoting Bush, Levin said the president said the Iraqis should look to “possibly” amend their constitution, which was adopted in October but left room open for changes in the four months following Thursday’s scheduled elections.
“They don’t need to ‘possibly’ change the constitution, they desperately need to change the constitution. There should be no 'ifs,' no 'ands,' and no 'buts,' about what the Iraqis need to do,” Levin said. The changes are needed to include the Sunni minority in the political process, a situation that would set the stage for Iraqis to take on the insurgency, the senator said.
The press conference followed a letter sent by 41 senators that aimed to remind Bush about the Senate resolution reached in November that called for 2006 to “be a period of significant transition to full Iraqi sovereignty.
“While we appreciate your recent speeches on this issue, we regret that the American people have still not been presented with a plan that identifies the remaining political, economic, and military benchmarks that must be met and a reasonable schedule to achieve them. We hope you will use Wednesday's speech to finally provide a detailed explanation of your strategy for the successful completion of the mission in Iraq," the letter says.
“The window of time to get things right in Iraq may be rapidly closing. The successful completion of our mission is possible only through the hard work of the Iraqi people and the effective leadership of your administration. We stand ready to work with the Iraqi people and your administration in the days ahead,” the senators wrote.
But the president has met opposition from Democrats, most vocally from Murtha, who has called for a redeployment of troops to countries near Iraq. Murtha has cited polls that show Iraqis want the troops out as evidence that Americans have become the Iraqis’ enemy.
Before departing Tuesday evening with a group of senators to observe the Iraqi elections, Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., another Bush critic, also called on the president to include other nations in the efforts toward Iraqi democracy.
"[The administration] must actively involve the major international powers and Iraq's neighbors in a strategy of stabilization,” including European, Middle Eastern and Asian nations. They could also help in constitutional negotiations, Biden said.
“The Iraqis should see a united international front” which would help make tough decisions “they know they have to make but are incapable of making them without outside pressure, in my view,” Biden said.
But three congressmen, in what they said was an attempt to show bipartisan support for Iraq, called on their colleagues to exhibit solidarity with those voting this week. Reps. Jim Marshall, D-Ga.; Duncan Hunter, R-Calif.; and Ike Skelton, D-Mo. sported inked fingers in a press conference Wednesday.
Skelton credited Marshall for the idea of inking their fingers. For his part, Marshall wished the Iraqis well.
"It’s a small, token way of us saying we’re with you. We wish you success on this very major milestone, and once this election turns out, however it is, whoever wins, that it be an election which represents the voice of the Iraqis, which sets the stage for them to glue together their constitutional government," said Skelton, ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee.
Responding to reporters' questions, Hunter and Skelton said they believed the government should listen to the Iraqi government if they ask the U.S. military to withdraw.
"Our mission is to respect that freedom," said Hunter, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, although he said he hoped the decisions to withdraw would be based on military officials' assessments. He echoed earlier statements by Bush, who has said withdrawal should not be a political decision.
And although Murtha has drawn increasing support, notably from House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, of California, evidence is growing that Americans are rallying behind the president, said Kristol, adding that he doesn’t understand why Democrats don’t just "lay off the criticism for a few days.”
Kristol said later: “I think by saying that he takes full responsibility he puts those who voted for the war and now want to pull out ... it puts them on the spot."
Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, told FOX News she believed it’s necessary for the troops to stay in Iraq to help show others in the region democracy can work, but only time will tell when the troops can come home.
“One of the reasons that you have to stay in Iraq and see this through is if Iraq can govern itself with the people coming together … others who are looking for reform, who are looking for more freedom will see that it can work," Hutchison said.
“I think that when we see Iraqi security forces standing up and defending their country, we will all think it is a victory,” Hutchison said, adding that “Americans can come home under the right circumstances.”
Ed Rogers, a former aide to President George H.W. Bush, told FOX News he thinks the president’s speeches have taken advantage of a splintered Democratic front.
“The Democrats are divided and confused and hand-wringing, and in some cases saying some pretty crazy stuff,” Rogers said.
“When you have the president, … his commitment, and his sense of purpose contrasted with, again, the confusion and the fragmented voices and the hand-wringing from the Democrats side, the president’s running in the clear right now,” Rogers said.