- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 1, 2005

Congress’ top two Democrats said yesterday that there should not be a set schedule for pulling troops out of Iraq, contradicting Sen. Edward M. Kennedy’s call on Thursday for the United States to withdraw 12,000 troops immediately and complete a full withdrawal by early 2006.

“As far as setting a timeline, as we learned in the Balkans, that’s not a wise decision, because it only empowers those who don’t want us there. And it doesn’t work well to do that,” said Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat.

On Thursday, Mr. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, gave a speech calling for an immediate withdrawal of some troops as a way of showing that the United States does not intend to be an occupying force and then called for the military to come up with a plan for complete pullout in early 2006.

But House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, who joined Mr. Reid for a “prebuttal” to President Bush’s upcoming State of the Union address, said the critical element is having a clear set of goals.

“It’s not about a calendar; it’s about performance,” Mrs. Pelosi said when asked whether she agreed with Mr. Kennedy’s call.

But she said the administration still hasn’t laid out a clear set of performance goals so Americans can judge progress.

“But if you have no plan, no road map, no standards, it’s very hard to judge whether you have succeeded and whether it’s time to come home,” she said.

At the White House yesterday, press secretary Scott McClellan said it will be up to “the commanders on the ground” and the Iraqi government to decide troop levels, but he said setting a specific timetable would “send the wrong message to the terrorists because all the terrorists have to do is wait, and then they can plan and coordinate and prepare attacks around those timetables.”

Asked about an exit strategy, he said the focus should be on the work that American troops are doing.

“We want to talk about the importance of completing the mission and helping the Iraqi people build a brighter future. That’s where our focus should be,” he said. “The mission is, as I stated, to put Iraq on a path to democracy and in position to be able to defend themselves. And then our troops can return home with honor.”

Mr. Bush delivers the annual State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress tomorrow, and Mrs. Pelosi and Mr. Reid, in dual speeches at the National Press Club yesterday, previewed his challenge.

Both said they don’t have high expectations for his oratory.

Mr. Reid, compared the president unfavorably to former President Ronald Reagan, whose speeches he recalled being “mesmerized by.”

“I was watching what he was saying and not hearing what he was saying because he was so good,” Mr. Reid said. “I don’t think that’s a danger we’re going to have Wednesday night.”

Mrs. Pelosi said the bar is fairly low for Mr. Bush to get a good reception — at least from the Republicans who will pack the room.

“You really don’t have to have many communications skills to have a couple hundred people who will jump to their feet if you recite the ABCs,” she said.

Mr. Reid said he thinks that the administration does deserve credit for doing one thing well — “their ability to misdirect.”

Both leaders said Sunday’s elections were important because they provide an opportunity for the United States to evaluate its position in Iraq.

“Now it is time to take the additional steps that will improve Iraq’s economic and political stability and allow our troops to come home. That means changing our military focus from combat operations to training the Iraqi army,” Mrs. Pelosi said.

Democrats continue to try to find their footing after losses in November’s elections.

They appear unified in opposing the president on his push for adding private accounts to Social Security, but agree less on a message on the president’s execution of the war on terror.

They split last week on the confirmation of Condoleezza Rice to be secretary of state, with 12 Democrats and the chamber’s lone independent voting against her. Now a group of Democrats, with leading liberal Mr. Kennedy as the highest-profile member, is calling for a specific plan to withdraw from Iraq.

Mr. Reid said he hadn’t read Mr. Kennedy’s speech last week calling for a new American strategy in Iraq, “but I don’t think Senator Kennedy called for any certain time to withdraw the troops.”

But Mr. Kennedy did call for exactly that.

“Once Sunday’s elections are behind us and the democratic transition is under way, President Bush should immediately announce his intention to negotiate a timetable for a drawdown of American combat forces with the Iraqi government,” Mr. Kennedy said, adding that at least 12,000 “should leave at once.”

Brian Jones, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee, said Mr. Reid’s and Mrs. Pelosi’s speeches “were full of pessimism and personal attacks but lacked any vision for winning the war on terror or preserving Social Security for future generations.”

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