- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Something happened in Washington last week. Like Rip Van Winkle, the Senate collectively appeared to have awakened from a long slumber, in this case over the conduct of the war in Iraq.

The accumulation of revelations about that war, continuing casualties, the treatment of enemy combatants, the indictment of Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff “Scooter” Libby for perjury and obstruction of justice in the investigation of the “outing” of a CIA covert agent, and, perhaps most importantly, the decline in the president’s approval ratings below 40 percent were each alarm bells that refused to stop ringing.

Meanwhile, in the House, verbal battles and near fisticuffs broke out over the announcement by Democratic Rep. John P. Murtha of Pennsylvania calling for the withdrawal of American forces from Iraq as soon as “practicable.” Mr. Murtha, a veteran of the Korean War, re-enlisted for Vietnam, where he was twice wounded and received the Bronze Star. On the Defense Appropriations Committee, Mr. Murtha is among the staunchest supporters of the military in Congress. Hence, his comments had particular gravitas.

Just after the Senate awakened from its slumber to prod the administration on these issues, Mr. Murtha’s comments ricocheted throughout the House. Some Republicans were incensed, inferring the former Marine’s actions were “cowardly” and saying that the United States could not abandon the fight. Democrats fired back, noting that many of the most senior administration officials and some Republicans in Congress never served in uniform and thus had no right to make those accusations.

The dramatically different responses in Congress reflected the different character of the Senate and the House. But that will not answer the question of whether the civil and gentler reaction in the Senate or the eruption in the House will prevail in defining how the nation will deal with the profoundly perplexing problems of bringing peace and stability to Iraq. Obviously, the White House will play a crucial role here. A rhetorical policy of staying the course and dismissing the legitimate concern emerging from Congress will surely threaten a national nightmare.

Well before the House fireworks, the Senate had voted 90-9 in favor of an amendment offered by Sen. John McCain banning “cruel, inhuman and degrading” treatment of enemy prisoners. The vice president had been lobbying hard against these restrictions applying to the CIA. Last week, the Senate passed by 79-19 an amendment calling for a “significant transition” in completing the mission in Iraq, as well as mandating recurring progress reports on the war. The latter was a caution rather than a chastisement of the administration.

The consuming issue has become the war in Iraq and the strategy for ensuring a successful outcome. The major complaint from both sides of the aisle is the administration’s failure or reluctance to state an explicit strategy and present to the public relatively frequent and objective situation reports of where things are going well, where they are not, and how deficiencies and mistakes are being corrected.

Collateral issues include equally testing and difficult problems: the size and duration of American military presence in Iraq; treatment of enemy combatants; preventing the spread of instability within the region. But overarching all of these tough choices and decisions is the dominating question of whether or not the United States will overcome the hugely difficult challenges and succeed in Iraq and the war on terror.

The political process has become so filled with bitter partisanship and bile that merely managing a rational and balanced discussion on Iraq, let alone debate, may be impossible. The plea for bipartisanship is worthy and commendable. It may not be achievable.

Administration strategy is to train Iraqi security forces and transfer operational responsibility to those troops as quickly as possible. That also means assigning more Iraqi forces to “holding” areas once swept of the enemy to prevent its return. Hence, success rests ultimately in the competence and will of Iraqi forces.

This was the aim in Vietnam with the policy of “Vietnamization.” One crucial reason why South Vietnam finally fell was because its army without U.S. assistance was defeated by North Vietnam. That cannot be allowed to happen in Iraq, admittedly in a campaign against insurgents, not conventional military forces.

Whether deliberations over Iraq will explode into political partisan warfare or not at home, there are two steps that must be taken. First, we need to know what else must be done in building these security forces so that a fate similar to South Vietnam will not await Iraq when the United States reduces its presence. Second, we need to know what regional states can do to prevent instability from spilling outside of Iraq. The answers will go a long way in allowing the White House and Congress to do their duty on Iraq.

Harlan Ullman is a columnist for The Washington Times.

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