Monday, December 1, 2003

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, fresh from her own trip to Iraq, accused President Bush yesterday of conducting the war by a “political calendar,” saying he had dispatched the wrong “mix of troops” to secure the country and that victory “is not certain.”

In an interview on NBC’s “Today” show early yesterday, the New York Democrat said her war-zone visit last weekend “with not only the military, but the civilian American representatives” revealed that “clearly what we’re doing now is not an effective strategy.”

Success in rebuilding Iraq, she said, can only come with the involvement of the United Nations, which has been reluctant to aid U.S. efforts in the country and has reduced personnel in response to a string of terrorist attacks.

“We need to get the U.N. back in as quickly as possible to internationalize this,” Mrs. Clinton told “Today.” “We need the legitimacy of the United Nations in order to move forward.”

Mrs. Clinton also told the Associated Press while touring Iraq on Friday that the United States could not be certain of victory in Iraq.

“We have to exert all of our efforts militarily, but the outcome is not assured,” Mrs. Clinton said.

The senator’s message was a striking contrast to that of Mr. Bush, who told cheering troops during a surprise trip to Baghdad a day before Mrs. Clinton arrived that there is no doubt that “we will prevail.”

“We will win because our cause is just,” Mr. Bush said on Thanksgiving Day. “We will win because we will stay on the offensive. We will win because you’re part of the finest military ever assembled. And we will prevail because the Iraqis want their freedom.”

Speaking with the handful of reporters who accompanied him to Iraq on Thursday on the secret Air Force One flight, Mr. Bush said walking into the mess hall to greet members of the 82nd Airborne Division was “an emotional moment.”

“The energy level was beyond belief,” he said en route home. “I mean, I’ve been in front of some excited crowds before, but this was — the place truly erupted and I could see the look of amazement and then look of appreciation on the kids’ faces.

“Working the crowd, a soldier said to me: ‘I’m so glad you came. Thanks for coming. It’s important for us to know that the people of America support us,’” Mr. Bush said. “The fact that the president would come confirms that in this soldier’s mind. And I think it confirmed it in a lot of soldiers’ minds.”

Asked on “Today” whether the president’s Thanksgiving Day trip to Baghdad was a morale booster or merely a politically staged photo op, Mrs. Clinton said, “I think it was both.”

“I applaud the president. It sends a message of support,” she said. “But on the other hand it isn’t a substitute for a plan to increase security or to eventually create more independence for Iraqis.”

Mrs. Clinton also accused the Bush administration of putting politics over sound policy in Iraq.

“I think an exit strategy, unfortunately, is being driven by our political calendar, not necessarily what’s in the best interest of a long-term, stable Iraq,” she said.

Mrs. Clinton also told AP that military personnel with whom she had spoken wanted to know “how the people at home feel about what we are doing.”

Mrs. Clinton said she told the troops, “Americans are wholeheartedly proud of what you are doing, but there are many questions at home about the administration’s policies.”

Republican consultant Scott Reed called the comments “un-American.”

“Any member of the U.S. Senate should be supporting our troops 100 percent,” Mr. Reed said. “It sounds like Senator Clinton has been stung by the fact that President Bush overshadowed her trip to Iraq and left her as an after-story. So to break into the debate, she’s had to take the low road.”

Leon Panetta, former Clinton administration chief of staff, said he wouldn’t “second-guess” Mrs. Clinton’s trip to Iraq, and was glad that she had prefaced criticism of Mr. Bush’s conduct of the war with support for the troops.

“Obviously, policy differences will be presented, but I think those battles need to be fought here in this country,” Mr. Panetta said. “I think when it comes to visiting our troops, it’s important to let them know that the country is supporting their mission. Both parties need to be clearer about that message.”

As to whether troops would get the wrong message by hearing criticism of their commander in chief from a sitting senator, Mr. Panetta said that “our troops are pretty smart,” and that they can conduct their mission in a war zone and “also know that there is going to be some political disagreement about how it is being conducted.”

Despite Mrs. Clinton’s criticism of the president’s Iraq policy, Mr. Panetta said she and Mr. Bush are pursuing the same goal.

“Both the president as well as Mrs. Clinton are pretty much saying the same thing right now,” Mr. Panetta said. “We’ve got to provide a transition of authority to the Iraqis as quickly as possible.”

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