- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 8, 2007

The Defense Department’s top civilian and its top military officer, undercutting the White House and other senior Republicans yesterday, said Congress doesn’t endanger troop morale by voting on nonbinding resolutions opposing President Bush’s Iraq reinforcement plan.

“From the standpoint of the troops, I believe that they understand how our legislature works and that they understand that there’s going to be this kind of debate,” said Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Peter Pace, effectively taking out of play an argument that had been made by Mr. Bush’s spokesman and other top Republicans, who had warned resolutions disagreeing with the troop increase plan would send bad signals.

Joining Gen. Pace in testifying to the House Armed Services Committee, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said the troops are “sophisticated enough to understand” that the debate is about a way to move forward in Iraq.

But Gen. Pace said that would all change if today’s nonbinding resolutions turned into moves to cut off funding for the war effort — something some Democrats have proposed.

“They’re going to be looking to see whether or not they are supported in the realm of mission given and resources provided,” the Marine general said. “As long as this Congress continues to do what it has done, which is to provide the resources for the mission, the dialogue will be the dialogue, and the troops will feel supported.”

The two men’s comments are in stark contrast to arguments made by Republicans, including the president’s spokesman, Tony Snow, that a debate on resolutions could have an effect on the troops.

“Think about what message resolutions would send,” Mr. Snow said last month, adding that while he wouldn’t judge the effects himself, “It is a question that those who are talking about these resolutions will have to answer to themselves and to the public.”

Arizona Sens. Jon Kyl and John McCain and Utah Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, all Republicans, have raised similar questions — just yesterday, in the case of Mr. Hatch.

“Our political will is directly related to the morale of our troops,” he said on the Senate floor. “Those who seek to, for rhetorical purposes only, assert their support of the troops while communicating their opposition to their mission cannot sever this natural connection between political will and morale.”

Mr. McCain last month raised the question about resolutions and morale with Army Lt. Gen. David H. Petraeus, the new commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, during a Senate hearing.

“It would not be a beneficial effect,” answered Gen. Petraeus.

The division over U.S. troop morale aside, Mr. Gates, Gen. Pace and others all agreed that the debate could send wrong signals to al Qaeda and other enemies the United States is fighting.

The House will begin debating an anti-reinforcements resolution next week, with Democratic leaders hoping to succeed where the Senate failed.

Senate Republicans on Monday foiled that chamber’s debate by using procedural means to block a final vote on a resolution that would have said the Senate “disagrees” with the plan to increase troops, but backs Mr. Bush’s view that victory in Iraq is a critical objective.

Mr. Bush last month said he would send about 17,500 more soldiers to Baghdad to try to counter Sunni-Shi’ite sectarian violence that threatens Iraq’s fledgling government, and deploy an additional 4,000 Marines to Anbar province to combat al Qaeda fighters making a stand there.

The president has claimed the authority as commander in chief to proceed.

Democrats who oppose the troop increase were left with few alternatives: rescind the authorization to go to war, cut off funding for troops, or pass a nonbinding resolution that has no effect but lets members vent their feelings on the way the war is going.

“We have a house that’s burning, and we’re putting gasoline on it by sending more troops to Iraq when what we need to be doing is trying to put out that fire,” Rep. Hank Johnson, Georgia Democrat, told Gen. Pace and Mr. Gates yesterday. “I think that’s what the American people want to hear.”

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