WASHINGTON – The United States' "plan for victory," introduced Wednesday in a 35-page declassified document and followed by a speech by President Bush, offered a specific outline for success in Iraq, and even found faint praise from one of the president's major opponents.
But it did not stem the criticism by Democrats that the Bush administration does not recognize that Iraqis want U.S. troops out of Iraq.
"When 80 percent of the people say we want America to withdraw and when 45 percent of the people in the country we're fighting for believe it's OK to kill Americans to help us get there, the president is not dealing with a certain kind of reality that's important to the lives of our troops," said Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., Bush's opponent in the 2004 presidential election.
"It's all well and good to talk about being there with your troops training on the ground — training — until we are ready to leave. But that ignores what his own generals have told him," Kerry said of the president. "General Casey has said very clearly that it is the large presence of American forces on the ground that feeds the insurgency and makes it more difficult for the Iraqis to assume responsibility, because they don't have to."
The American public's concern about troops in Iraq has heightened as reports have increased on the use of improvised explosive devices on U.S. forces. More than 2,100 U.S. troops have died in Iraq since the war began in March 2003, leading to a fight in Washington about whether to send more troops or to draw down the numbers quickly in advance of a full pullout.
Democrats have launched multiple attacks against the president, claiming the administration misconstrued pre-war intelligence to boost the argument for using military force to oust Saddam Hussein. The administration, in turn, has gone on the offensive, pointing out that many of these Democrats voted in favor of using force and alleging that they are now playing a game of cut-and-run when the going gets tough.
On Wednesday, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said she wants to see a withdraw from Iraq following a suggestion first made two weeks ago by Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa. Murtha argued the United States should develop a timetable for departure from Iraq — with all U.S. troops out in six months — because U.S. forces have become the target for attacks.
"I'm endorsing what Mr. Murtha is saying, which is that the status quo is not working and that we need to have a plan that makes us safer and our military stronger and makes Iraq more stable," Pelosi said. "I believe that what he has said has great wisdom."
House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., accused Pelosi of playing politics with the war. "This war and the safety of the American people is simply too important for flip-flopping or indecision. We cannot afford to retreat," he said in a statement.
Amb. Dennis Ross, a former Middle East envoy and FOX News contributor, agreed it would not be a good idea to set a timetable for departure — something only a minority in Washington wants so far — because that would send a message that not only is the United States looking to get out, but that terrorists "can bide their time until a point where they can then increase the level of their efforts so it makes it look like they actually won, so it makes them look like they forced us out."
Ross said that the continued presence of Americans on the ground is a symbol of occupation to some, but the real test of success is whether the presence achieves clear objectives.
It "is important for us to show that the purpose of what we're doing there is to turn over Iraq to the Iraqis. At the end of the day, our success in Iraq isn't going to be ours, it's going to be theirs," he said.
The two-pronged criticism that seems to be following Bush argues on the one hand that Iraqis resent U.S. forces for continuing to remain on the ground as "occupiers," while at the same time claims Iraqis are happy for Americans to face the brunt of the threat because they don't want to learn how to do defend themselves.
"There's no question, I think, political progress has been made" but the question is more an issue of whether Iraqis can defend themselves, former Clinton Chief of Staff Leon Panetta told FOX News. "Until that begins to change, I think there's still going to be concerns among the American people about whether there's a light at the end of the tunnel."
"A strategy in Iraq has to embrace not just security forces, operations against insurgents, it has to embrace economic reform, political progress," said Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I. "One of the feelings I have at least is the president talked about, sort of, the security forces, because at least he has a check list of accomplishments he can cite. When you get into the area of political development, and particularly economic reconstruction, it's a much bleaker picture, given the two years we've been there."
"What the president did not do today, again, is acknowledge the fundamental reality of the insurgency," said Kerry, noting that Bush recognized in his speech that supporters of Saddam Hussein and resisters to the new Iraqi government are the most significant parts of the insurgency.
"Neither of those will be beaten at the face of a gun. They will be beaten through the political resolution, through a solution that has to be achieved politically," Kerry said.
In his speech to the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., Bush offered a list of military achievements in Iraq that are meant to quell criticism that the strategy is leaving U.S. troops vulnerable. While offering numerous benchmarks that seemed to suggest the Iraqis are picking up a lot of the responsibilities of operating a military and government, the president also dismissed critics who say Iraqis aren't interested in learning how to defend their country or take difficult steps toward democracy after decades of dictatorship.
"As we train Iraqis to take more responsibility in the battle with the terrorists, we're also helping them build a democracy that is worthy of their sacrifice. And in just over two and a half years, the Iraqi people have made incredible progress on the road to lasting freedom. Iraqis have gone from living under the boot of a brutal tyrant to liberation, free elections and a democratic constitution, and in 15 days they will go to the polls to elect a fully constitutional government that will lead them for the next four years," Bush said.
"With each ballot cast, the Iraqi people have sent a clear message to the terrorists: Iraqis will not be intimidated. The Iraqi people will determine the destiny of their country. The future of Iraq belongs to freedom," he said.
The president added that Sunnis who originally boycotted elections in the beginning of 2005 are now under religious edict to participate in elections and the democratic government.
"Many Sunnis boycotted the January elections. Yet as democracy takes hold in Iraq, they are recognizing that opting out of the democratic process has hurt their interests. And today, those who advocate violent opposition are being increasingly isolated by Sunnis who choose peaceful participation in the democratic process. Sunnis voted in the recent constitutional referendum in large numbers. And Sunni coalitions have formed to compete in next month's elections," Bush said.
Rhetoric over U.S. involvement in Iraq has escalated to fever pitch over the past few weeks, leading to the lowest poll ratings for the president since he took office. In the most recent FOX News poll, Bush hit his all-time low of 36 percent approval and 53 percent disapproval. That's down from a 47 percent job approval rating in the end of July.
But White House Communications Director Dan Bartlett said critics of the president are ignoring the "clear articulation of the enemy" and what is being done to defeat them.
"The commanders on the ground are optimistic. The political leadership on the ground is optimistic. The Iraqi people are optimistic. It seems the only person who is not optimistic is John Kerry and some of his colleagues, and that's because they keep parroting back exactly what President Bush is doing, what the administration is doing on the ground, and it is working," Bartlett said.
In fact, Democrats have been looking to 2006 midterm elections while they debate the war in Iraq, say administration supporters. Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol said Iraqis are going to need U.S. troops in Iraq at least for a little while just to make sure democracy sticks and the insurgency is run down. He said the president needs to keep Americans apprised of events in Iraq, but shouldn't concern himself with domestic politics.
"His fundamental responsibility as commander in chief in my view is to win this war. That's certainly the way the president sees it. I think it would be really a disgrace frankly to be swayed by the notion that Republicans are going to lose a few seats in the House and the Senate, and therefore you should change a fundamental foreign policy objective," Kristol said.
"Who cares about the midterm elections? If Bush wins in Iraq, if we win in Iraq, it will be a victory for us and for the new Iraqi government for the Iraqi people. If we together win in Iraq, we will have changed history, we will have put the world on a much better course. That trumps everything else," he said.
Bush and other White House officials argue that political fighting at home not only sends a negative message to U.S. troops in Iraq, but also suggests to the enemy that if they wait long enough, the United States may leave the job before it's done. However, Bush said that he doesn't mean Americans can't debate the facts.
"We should not fear the debate in Washington. It's one of the great strengths of our democracy that we can discuss our differences openly and honestly, even at times of war," Bush told the midshipmen. "Your service makes that freedom possible. And today, because of the men and women in our military, people are expressing their opinions freely in the streets of Baghdad as well."