White House Seeks to Stem Rising Antiwar Sentiment
By JOHN D. MCKINNON and GREG JAFFE
Staff Reporters of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
November 19, 2005; Page A4

WASHINGTON -- President Bush faces growing political problems over the Iraq war -- but so far has fended off constraints on his ability to conduct the conflict.

This week's surprise call by Democratic Rep. John Murtha for prompt troop withdrawals represented a significant blow to the administration, given the Pennsylvania lawmaker's credibility on defense issues. But other senior Democrats on Friday kept their distance from his remarks.

Meanwhile, Republican leaders in the Senate have beaten back in recent days Democratic attempts to pass a resolution seeking a specific withdrawal timetable. With Congress nearing completion of its business this year, and mostly only a few basic spending bills left to complete after Thanksgiving, the administration's supporters may have successfully dodged for this year congressional attempts to force some kind of troop drawdown.
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The broader question for the White House now is whether it can stem rising antiwar sentiment among the public. Following the modest public-relations boost they received from Iraqi elections in January and October, Mr. Bush and his aides now look to the Dec. 15 parliamentary contest as another step toward Iraq's emergence as a democracy capable of defending itself.

"The Bush administration needs some kind of progress that they can point to in Iraq, and it's possible that elections can be that," said Duke University political scientist Christopher Gelpi, who has studied the link between casualties and public opinion. That could in turn ease the path toward at least a limited reduction in the number of U.S. troops beginning next spring, which opinion polls show that Americans increasingly favor.

Continued drift would leave Mr. Bush and his Republican allies vulnerable to Democratic attacks in the 2006 congressional elections. The president has launched a rhetorical counterattack in recent days against the charge that the White House misled America about the reasons for war. Vice President Dick Cheney is expected to sound that theme again in a speech on Monday, and also attack what the White House perceives as Democrats' inconsistencies over the war. But aides acknowledge they don't know that effort will shore up public support.

"Things like that don't happen instantly," said senior adviser Dan Bartlett.

Rep. Murtha, a Vietnam veteran with strong ties to the military establishment, surprised colleagues on Thursday by announcing that he favors congressional action to redeploy U.S. troops from Iraq "at the earliest practicable date." His sometimes emotional comments prompted a fierce backlash from Republicans and the White House, which lumped the gruff Pennsylvanian with "[filmmaker] Michael Moore and the extreme liberal wing of the Democratic party."

The White House tempered its rhetoric on Friday. "We have nothing but respect for Congressman Murtha's service and his record of standing strong for our military," communications director Nicolle Wallace said on NBC's Today, but "we couldn't disagree more with the policy he advocated."

House Republicans took the unusual step of introducing their own resolution calling for immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops in order to force a vote Friday night on the issue, and so try to isolate Mr. Murtha. Rep. James McGovern of Massachusetts, a Democratic member of the House Rules Committee, described the maneuver as a "deliberate attack on a member of this House because the majority is afraid of this man and afraid of his views. This is a personal attack on one of the most respected members of the House and it is outrageous."

But that won't alleviate growing public unease about the war. In the most recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, 56% of Americans said they favor reduction in the number of U.S. troops in Iraq, with or without a specified timetable. Over the next few weeks, in preparation for December's elections, troop levels in Iraq will actually increase to as many as 160,000 soldiers from the current 140,000.

Senior Army officials say conditions on the ground following the elections will determine whether or not there is a drawdown. Some have suggested that a gradual drawdown could begin as soon as the spring, and that by the end of 2006 the U.S. could have fewer than 100,000 troops in Iraq.

In part, the push to reduce forces is driven by military officials' belief that the large U.S. presence could be driving many Iraqis to join the insurgency. By this logic, a gradual drawdown in U.S. forces could lead to a reduction in attacks, while forcing Iraqi security forces to shoulder a greater burden of keeping the peace in the fractious country.

Rep. Murtha embraced this argument. "The perception of occupation in Iraq is a major driving force behind the insurgency," he said. Even further, he essentially argued that U.S. forces had become the problem in Iraq and that the war may be unwinnable so long as they remain in large numbers.

Within the military, there is considerable disagreement about the potential consequences of a U.S. troop reduction. Critics of an imminent drawdown argue that in areas such as Mosul and Tal Afar, reductions in troop levels have tended to embolden insurgents and produce greater chaos. Even at current troop levels, some U.S. commanders have been quietly arguing that they don't have enough troops to succeed in places such as the restive al Anbar province, which includes Fallujah and Ramadi.

An immediate withdrawal would produce an explosion of violence so great it would be " hard to imagine," said Reuel Marc Gerecht of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think-tank. "You will set the stage for one hell of a civil war."


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