The White House, responding to what it considers rumors being spread by MoveOn.org, liberal blogs such as DailyKos.com and Democratic lawmakers, this week tried to persuade key lawmakers that President Bush is not attempting to bind his successor to a long-term military presence in Iraq.
Senior White House officials have briefed Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, and other congressional lawmakers about their negotiations with the Iraqi government and will continue to meet with other legislators next week.
“The argument that we seek permanent bases is a constant red herring of MoveOn.org and other interest groups who want us to retreat from Iraq, with no regard for our national security interests or the fate of the Iraqi people,” White House press secretary Dana Perino said.
The White House and administration officials say talks between the U.S. and Iraqi governments on a “status of forces agreement,” or SOFA, are preliminary, do not require congressional approval and are not about troop levels.
In Thursday night’s Democratic presidential debate, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton said she is sponsoring legislation to stop Mr. Bush from committing to permanent military bases or an “ongoing occupation” without congressional approval.
“We’re going to do everything we can to prevent him from binding any of us going into the future in a way that will undermine America’s interests,” said Mrs. Clinton of New York.
A senior administration official personally involved in the meetings told The Washington Times that people are forgetting that United Nations Security Council authority in Iraq ends in December.
“Therefore on January 1st , we have no authority to do anything in Iraq: protect our own people, fight al Qaeda, train and equip Iraq security forces, nothing,” the official said. “So we are going to be negotiating with Iraq to put in place the base-line set of authorities in which those basic missions can continue, and in which the next administration can have flexibility to carry out a range of policy options.”
The official said that Congress “will be fully consulted” about the SOFA, which will give a legal basis for legal troops in Iraq next year, but that official U.S.-Iraq negotiations will not begin until the end of this month. The U.S. has more than 100 agreements similar to SOFA, which are not subject to congressional ratification, with countries around the world.
“We have no interest in permanent bases,” Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has said publicly.
But key Democratic leaders such as Mr. Kennedy remain dubious, despite the stance by the White House that “we answered all of his questions.”
Mr. Kennedy “continues to have serious reservations about the scope and need for these negotiations,” spokeswoman Melissa Wagoner said yesterday. “He believes Congress must approve any agreement with Iraq that affects our troops and our national security.”
And Democrats have continued, with increasing frequency over the past few weeks, to accuse Mr. Bush of pernicious intent.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joseph R. Biden Jr., Delaware Democrat, sent a letter to the White House in December, and then released the letter to the press last month, complaining that he had received no response.
Mr. Biden wrote that “a commitment that the United States will act to assist Iraq … could effectively commit the nation to engage in hostilities,” and that any such commitment would have to be approved by Congress.
But the White House official said that Mr. Biden is “reading the word ‘commitments” completely out of context of the whole document.”
The White House”s push is just the latest skirmish in a battle between the Bush administration and MoveOn.org, which is part of a coalition of liberal grass-roots groups and blogs that have pushed unsuccessfully since the fall of 2006 for the full withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq.
The groups have moved many Democrats further to the left and drawn the ire of conservatives.
In September, Mr. Bush took direct aim at MoveOn.org, saying that their controversial ad attacking the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, Gen. David H. Petraeus, as “General Betray Us,” was “disgusting.”
The “netroots,” as the groups and blogs are known, “have had an effect, to really coalesce some feelings out there and put some candidates on the record,” said John Fortier, research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research.
“They have a significant following. They feel strongly, and the Democrats have to push for these things to satisfy them; but on the other hand realize that these things aren”t necessarily going to change,” Mr. Fortier said.
Much of the uproar among Democrats seems to have been spurred by comments made by the president”s “war czar,” Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute, in a press conference on Nov. 26.
Gen. Lute said that he did not “anticipate now that these negotiations will lead to the status of a formal treaty which would then bring us to formal negotiations or formal inputs from the Congress.”
Mrs. Perino and the White House official expressed confidence that since they have begun “getting more information out there about what this actually is, I think you”ll see some of this frenzy die down a little bit.”