WASHINGTON – The Senate's top Republican said Sunday that Democrats changing their tune on the Iraq surge proves the military effort is succeeding, but Mitch McConnell also acknowledged the political environment in Iraq is still "pretty much a disaster."
"We've had military progress. There's no question about that," McConnell, the Senate minority leader, told "FOX News Sunday." "The political side — the Iraqi government is still pretty much a disaster. I mean, they haven't done any of the things at the central government level that we had anticipated."
McConnell said he thought the most newsworthy story this August is the change of tune by Democrats, who are now recognizing military progress in Iraq. Still, he stuck by his earlier prediction that the U.S. will change its direction in the coming months following a progress report on the surge due next month from Gen. David Petraeus, the head of Multinational Forces in Iraq, and Ambassador Ryan Crocker.
McConnell said he doesn't want to prejudge the report, but he expects President Bush to announce a change in strategy after the report is received by Congress in mid-September.
"I do think there's a good chance that in September we'll go in a different direction. I don't think that means an arbitrary surrender date, but I think it's entirely possible that the president will lay out a strategy that takes us into a different place, which hopefully, at the end of the day, ends up with some American troops forward deployed in the Middle East at the end of this draw down that many of us are anticipating over a period of time," he said.
Returning from Iraq last week, the Democratic head of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Carl Levin, called for a no-confidence vote in Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. McConnell said he would not repeat that call.
"It's a democratically elected government, and I don't think we can dictate to them who they choose. But by any objective standard, any objective standard, the one thing that there is broad bipartisan agreement on in the United States Senate is that the Iraqi government has been a huge disappointment ... All of the kind of political compromises that we were looking to them to make, they have not yet made. Maybe it's not too late, but it's time they get about it," he said.
McConnell noted that the United States has not had a terror attack on its soil since Sept. 11, 2001, in part because of the effective job the military is doing abroad, but he said the surge can't go on forever. He noted that the military shouldn't be asked to referee the country while the Iraqi government dawdles and delays.
"Everyone knows that the United States and its incredibly effective military have given this government four years, an opportunity to get their act together, if you will, to do the kinds of things that they need to do to pull the country together," he said. "And by any objective standard, they haven't done it yet. They deserve to be criticized."
Similar to McConnell, Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., held firmly to the fact that the surge can't last forever and a plan must be in place to prepare for the end of the surge.
Reed, who acknowledged that the troop surge has produced military successes, said its purpose was to buy time for the Iraqi government to make political progress, but unfortunately that has not been achieved.
"Our forces are doing a magnificent job. They're on the ground. They're making progress. But unfortunately, that progress is highly reversible because there's been no political buy-in by the Iraqi political leadership, no political progress," he said. "We have invested a huge amount of American treasure, most particularly our sons and daughters in Iraq. We have a right to be critical."
Reed added that now is the time to consider what will happen after the troop surge, noting that forces will have to draw down in April 2008 because the military is constrained by the length of service tours.
A plan is needed to deal with that impending void, according to Reed, who said it should have been devised prior to U.S. military deployment in Iraq. Reed said that even with a plan to get a withdrawal procedure into place, it won't happen overnight.
"This notion of just simply picking up our stakes and just walking out on a certain weekend is wrong. But we do have to begin a reduction. We begin to lower our forces and, in fact, it's going to happen anyway. That's what I think — many people miss the point," he said.