- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 22, 2006

Democrats pushing for a quick pullout of U.S. troops from Iraq are making a major political and strategic mistake that would endanger America’s national security, party strategists and military policy advisers said yesterday.

As anti-war Democrats stepped up their political offensive in Congress through a series of votes on amendments calling for a military withdrawal from Iraq, a counteroffensive appeared to be building among more hawkish party advisers who warned that a precipitous pullout now would send the wrong signal to Americans about the Democrats’ commitment to the new Iraqi government and its fight against al Qaeda terrorists.

Most of the criticism was aimed at Democratic proposals pushed by Rep. John P. Murtha of Pennsylvania and Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, who are calling for a withdrawal within one year — beginning this year — a move that some party advisers called a “mistake” and “extreme.”

“To go as far as Kerry and Murtha is a mistake, unless you already think we’ve lost,” said Michael O’Hanlon, a Brookings Institution military analyst who advises Democrats in Congress on national security issues. “If you think we can win, you need to maintain some level of a U.S. presence, probably for several years, because the threat of a civil war is too great.”

“Although the center of gravity in the Democratic Party still refuses to embrace the Kerry-Murtha notion, it has to be said that it is moving in that direction. It’s a minority view in the Democratic Party, but it is a growing view,” Mr. O’Hanlon said.

What disturbs him most is the “growing number of Democrats who want to see a downward movement in our troop size in Iraq, almost irrespective of the strategy” to fight and win the war, he said.

A sharper broadside at anti-war Democrats was hurled by Third Way, a Democratic think tank that wants the party to embrace more centrist policies, including a tougher national security posture in the war against terrorism.

In a statement issued at the start of this week’s Senate debate on Iraq, Third Way President Jonathan Cowan urged Democrats to reject “calls for an immediate exit or for arbitrary timelines that ignore the danger to American national security of a precipitous withdrawal of our forces.”

Mr. Cowan’s group endorsed an amendment offered by Democratic Sens. Carl Levin of Michigan and Jack Reed of Rhode Island that would begin a phased withdrawal by year’s end but does not set specific numerical reductions or a deadline for future reductions. “This amendment rejects both extremes in the debate over the future of Iraq,” he said.

The Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) also rejected “any fixed withdrawal deadline. We differ from most Republicans who continuously search for ways to vindicate the administration’s long series of failures in Iraq, and from some Democrats who want to give up and abandon Iraq,” the DLC said in a statement on its Web site.

“Democrats have the obligation … to demand a clear strategy for success” in Iraq, the DLC said.

The fight among Democrats over what their party’s policy should be on Iraq drew widespread criticism from political analysts this week. The “Democrats were busy being Democrats — divided, defensive and confused about the war,” wrote Time magazine’s Joe Klein.

But Democratic campaign consultant Alan Secrest said he has seen no large shifts among voters toward President Bush’s handling of Iraq as a result of the split in the party’s ranks over the war.

“I’m not saying there are not occasional shifts here and there, but in terms of the bottom line and the political health of the president and his impact on this year’s races, I’m not seeing a change in attitudes,” Mr. Secrest said. “We’ll have to wait and see whether perceptions begin to change over time.”.

Meanwhile, Democratic hawks were urging party leaders to change the way they talk about Iraq and the terrorists there who seek to bring down the new government.

“The problem with Iraq is not Bush, it is Saddam Hussein and his legacy,” Mr. O’Hanlon said. “It would be better if the critics of the administration find a tone that conveys that.”

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