THE WASHINGTON TIMES Ohio Sen. George V. Voinovich yesterday called for a "military disengagement" from Iraq, the second Republican this week to voice doubts about President Bush's troop-surge strategy while simultaneously discrediting Democrats' plans for an abrupt pullout.
Sen. Richard G. Lugar of Indiana, the ranking Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, said in a speech Monday that the president should "downsize the U.S. military's role in Iraq" and forge a new Middle East strategy.
Democratic leaders and antiwar groups seized upon the remarks, especially Mr. Lugar's, as evidence their plan to isolate Mr. Bush from his Republican allies was working.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat who vows by fall to pass a troop-withdrawal bill, called Mr. Lugar's speech "a turning point" in the war debate.
But Mr. Voinovich and Mr. Lugar oppose Democratic alternatives, including pullout timetables they say would undermine U.S. credibility.
"Such a withdrawal would compound the risks of a wider regional conflict stimulated by Sunni-Shia tensions," Mr. Lugar said. "It would also be a signal that the United States was abandoning efforts to prevent Iraqi territory from being used as a terrorist base."
Mr. Voinovich, in a letter yesterday to Mr. Bush that outlined a policy proposal for Iraq, said it was "absolutely critical that we avoid being forced into a precipitous withdrawal, whether it is because of world events or our own political atmosphere at home."
The lawmakers' careful moves to challenge Mr. Bush while not outright joining antiwar Democrats highlights the rocky political landscape confronting Republicans as the war they have loyally supported grows more unpopular each day.
Republican leaders say they want to give the troop surge now under way in Baghdad time to succeed and are waiting for a September progress report by Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq.
"There are signs of improvement, but al Qaeda understands the stakes as well as we do," House Minority Leader John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, said of the recent bombings and attacks in Iraq.
Mr. Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, plan in September to pursue more measures to end the war.
They backed downlast month when Mr. Bush vetoed a timetable to pullout troops by April. Next time, they hope enough Republicans will defect to give them the two-thirds majority vote needed to override a veto.
White House press secretary Tony Snow said the administration has long been aware that Mr. Lugar had reservations about the war.
"We take seriously his point of view because he is a serious guy," Mr. Snow said. "On the other hand, we also take seriously the efforts and the advice that the president has gotten from his commanders on the ground."
Mr. Lugar, who told reporters yesterday that he wasn't presenting his own Iraq plan and looked to the administration to come up with a new strategy, criticized the tenor of the war debate in the Democrat-controlled Congress.
"Each of us should take a step back from the sloganeering rhetoric and political opportunism that has sometimes characterized this debate," he said on the Senate floor Monday.
Mr. Voinovich, a staunch defender of the commander in chief's war powers who has been targeted in his home state by antiwar activists, suggested starting a gradual troop withdrawal coupled with robust diplomacy and foreign aid to help prevent the country's collapse.
An aide said the timing of the proposal was not related to an announcement this week that a coalition of liberal political group was stirring antiwar sentiment in the home states of Mr. Voinovich and 40 other Republican members of Congress.
In the Senate speech, Mr. Lugar encouraged the president to revisit recommendations made in December by the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, which proposed slowly removing U.S. troops while handing security responsibilities over to Iraqi forces and undertaking a regional diplomatic effort.
Mr. Bush at first discarded the recommendations in favor of the surge, which three weeks ago reached its full strength of about 140,000 troops. But last month, he endorsed the study group's advice as a possible "plan B" following the summer offensive.