Some of the harshest Democratic critics of President Bush’s Iraq policy have grudgingly admitted that it has helped spark a growing desire for democracy in the Middle East.
Democrats aren’t taking to the Senate floor to praise Mr. Bush’s role in the spectacle of Lebanese protesters demanding independence from Syrian control, or the elections in Iraq, or the news that Saudi Arabia and Egypt have committed to freer elections.
But many critics of the war — which Lebanese democrats cite as a turning point in their cause — are slowly admitting that the president may have done the right thing in quickly taking out Saddam Hussein in 2003.
Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg, the New Jersey Democrat who delivered a famous “chicken hawk” speech deriding the war advocates in the Bush administration and voted against funding the war, said yesterday that recent developments in Lebanon and Syria suggest the war was a force for good.
“The war gave the Lebanese the spine they needed,” Mr. Lautenberg said yesterday. “It told them, ‘We can get rid of these vultures.’”
Sen Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, said on ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday that Mr. Bush deserves some credit for the positive developments in the still volatile region.
“What’s taken place in a number of those countries is enormously constructive,” Mr. Kennedy said. “It’s a reflection the president has been involved.”
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, said he didn’t hear Mr. Bush’s speech yesterday on spreading freedom in the Middle East, but “if there were ever a place in the world where we need democracy, it’s in the Middle East.”
“Any breakthrough we get there, whether it’s in Lebanon or Egypt, is a step in the right direction and I support the president in that regard,” Mr. Reid said.
Asked whether Mr. Bush deserved credit for those developments, Mr. Reid said “we’ll just have to wait and see.”
But Massachusetts Democratic Sen. John Kerry, whose criticism of Mr. Bush’s Iraq policy did not translate into a presidential victory in November, said Mr. Bush deserves no credit for recent developments in the Middle East.
“An assassination made this happen,” Mr. Kerry said, referring to the car bomb that killed former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri last month. The killing has been blamed on Syria.
Mr. Kerry said any good that comes from the Iraq war does not make it the right decision.
“This was not the reason we went to war, but it’s a very good outcome,” Mr. Kerry said.
A senior Democratic Senate aide acknowledged that many in his party were surprised by recent developments in the Middle East and realized that attacking the president on the war would have less bite.
“You have to give the guy a modicum of credit,” the senior aide said. “There’s no denying that the Iraq vote could be a catalyst for change in the region. Everyone up here, Democrats and Republicans, want to see peace in that region.”
Such conciliatory comments, however, contrast sharply with the heated anti-war rhetoric of just six weeks ago. Mr. Kennedy was the most vocal, calling the entire Iraqi operation a “failure” and demanding immediate U.S. withdrawal.
“Our military and the insurgents are fighting for the same thing — the hearts and minds of the people — and that is a battle we are not winning,” Mr. Kennedy said in a speech at Johns Hopkins University just three days before Iraq’s first free election in decades.
Mr. Kennedy also called Iraq “George Bush’s Vietnam” in a Jan. 12 speech at the National Press Club, insisting Mr. Bush “has bogged America down in an endless quagmire.”
Another Democratic Senate aide said he doesn’t expect to hear much of that kind of talk in the future.
“Even if things start to go south, I think we all agree that ripping Bush over this is not very constructive,” he said. “And nobody wants to be on the wrong side of this if it continues to go well, either.”