House Democrats Sharpen Iraq Talk

Posted May 21, 2004 at 6:44pm

Congressional Democrats are edging toward a more muscular attack on the Bush administration’s Iraq policy, using the Memorial Day recess to link revelations of prison abuse by American soldiers to actions and decisions that predated the war.

In a staff report privately distributed among House Democrats before Congress broke for recess on Thursday, Appropriations ranking member David Obey (D-Wis.) sketched out a narrative that tracks the conflict from “arrogance” and other “root causes,” through failure in the field, to consequences for the U.S. military and the region. The document is arranged as a series of talking points.

“You might find it of some use,” Obey says in a cover letter to colleagues. He noted that the Memorial Day recess “has traditionally been a time to recall the sacrifices so many have made to preserve the blessings of liberty.”

Obey said Thursday that the document represents the “best analysis of what the situation is” in Iraq and is intended only to provide Members with information.

“I think it’s useful to put in tight terms what actions led to what developments,” Obey said in an interview. Asked whether Members are expected to pluck their Memorial Day message from the report’s findings, Obey said, “I don’t care what Members do with it.”

While Congressional Democrats have been increasingly critical of the Bush administration’s planning for post-war Iraq — House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on Thursday called the president “incompetent” — most party officials have so far tried to avoid language that calls into question the entire war effort.

Obey’s staff report, which is titled “Crisis in Iraq,” goes some way toward crossing that line. It proposes a unified theory that links the “go-it-alone strategy,” “bad/manipulated intelligence” and “arrogance” among White House officials and the Pentagon’s civilian leadership with what many Democrats consider a disaster.

For instance, the report suggests that the recent prison abuse scandal resulted indirectly from a decision by the administration to prosecute the war “on the cheap,” with too few troops.

“This crisis is rooted in the Bush administration’s failed security policies and flawed leadership practices that pre-date the Iraq war,” the report says.

Obey is the second member of Pelosi’s inner circle — after Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), a key appropriator on defense issues — to emerge in recent weeks with a scathing indictment of the Bush administration’s performance in Iraq. Obey’s close ties to Pelosi suggest that the document’s release came with at least tacit approval from the Minority Leader.

Pelosi, who opposed the war from the outset, has generally limited her criticism to perceived failures in post-war planning — a stance that may not go as far as the party base would hope, but is necessary to balance the interests of pro-war Caucus members whom she would not want to isolate.

Rep. Norm Dicks (D-Wash.), a supporter of the move to oust Saddam Hussein, said that the Caucus’ divisions on the Iraq question are too wide to craft a unified policy. “There’s no way you could put together party policy on this,” Dicks said.

But proxies for Pelosi have become especially conspicuous recently in efforts to shape the debate inside the party. At a policy committee meeting Wednesday that was ostensibly about “outsourcing” of jobs, Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) — a Member widely regarded as Pelosi’s alter ego — steered the debate to consideration of the party’s approach on Iraq.

“I definitely think the tone is changing after Abu Ghraib” — the Iraqi prison that has been at the center of abuse allegations — said one House Democrat who was at the meeting.

This Member, who backed the war, said he detects an effort within leadership to test for boundaries in their rhetoric on Iraq. But he added, “The problem is that [Members] are still pretty much split along the lines of how they voted on the resolution” to go to war.

A Pelosi spokeswoman said Friday that the leader considers the staff report from Appropriations “excellent,” but stressed that Obey released it only on behalf of the Democrats on his committee.

Alluding to the officially neutral stance Pelosi has maintained on the war itself, Pelosi spokeswoman Jennifer Crider said that “leader Pelosi has said with regard to differences about Iraq that these were ‘votes of conscience.’”

Recent polls have shown slipping public support for the war effort, providing Democrats with an opportunity to hit President Bush on an area of policy — national defense — that had been regarded as one of his key strengths going into his re-election bid.

But the extent to which the Democrats can try to capitalize on this shift in public opinion remains unclear. The bulk of tossup Congressional races this fall are in districts that would be less likely to reflect this drop.

Meanwhile, the vast majority of Congressional Republicans — especially in the House — reject the premise that a “crisis” even exists in Iraq and disagree that a major shift in strategy or tactics is necessary to succeed.

Many GOP Members believe strongly that news reports depicting a steady disintegration of the mission in Iraq do not accurately reflect the reality on the ground. They suggest that Democrats are relying on this distorted picture of events.

Rep. David Hobson (R-Ohio), who chairs the Appropriations subcommittee on energy and water, pointed to a recent hearing before his panel. It featured witnesses from the Army Corps of Engineers who have been in Iraq to help rebuild the country.

Virtually no journalists showed up to cover the testimony. “There was one village where they didn’t have any drinking water,” Hobson said. “When [the engineers] fixed it, women ran out of their homes and were hugging them!”

Hobson dismissed the Democrats’ scathing criticism on Iraq as “desperation,” suggesting that robust economic growth in recent months has robbed the opposition of its main election issue.

But the Bush administration itself seems to be taking the mounting attacks more seriously.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have indicated that the White House has stepped up its outreach to Congress after the Abu Ghraib story broke. “It’s just like night and day,” Dicks said. “They’re up here every other day, briefing us. It used to be once a month.”

White House officials denied that any special effort was being made to reach out to Congress. “We obviously reach out to Members from both parties on a regular basis,” White House spokeswoman Claire Buchan said.

But Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.), the ranking member on the Foreign Relations Committee, said Tuesday that contact from the administration had increased significantly in the “last seven to 10 days.”

“They’re in real trouble and they’re now willing to talk,” he said. But he added, “They always stop talking when things change.”