Georgia Democrats conflicted on Iraq progress
WASHINGTON - Democratic Rep. David Scott of Atlanta utters three words not often heard from politicians when he’s asked about his opposition to President Bush’s troop “surge” in Iraq last year: “I was wrong.”
“I think in all honesty one has to give the president credit where credit is due,” Scott said in a recent interview. “He recommended the surge, and the surge has worked. ... You gotta be man enough to say, ‘Hey, I was wrong.’”
Other Georgia Democrats say not so fast. They argue it’s far from certain that Iraqi leaders can accomplish the long-term political reconciliation that the new strategy was supposed to create. They also say the decision came years too late and at too great a cost to the military.
“I can’t say whether it has or it hasn’t” worked, said Rep. John Barrow, a Savannah Democrat. “The Iraqis are the ones who have the responsibility to bring about an end to the civil war and only they have the power to do so. ... I do not regret the vote.”
Barrow and Scott were among five Georgia Democrats in Congress who voted against Bush’s decision — announced in January 2007 — to send some 30,000 additional troops into the most troubled areas of Iraq.
With a surprisingly sharp drop in violence since the move, the Democrats are now on the defensive against GOP criticism that they were too eager to pull the plug on the five-year war.
Violence in Iraq is at its lowest level in years, and key areas such as Anbar province, the birthplace of al-Qaida in Iraq, have been turned over to Iraqi control. The Bush administration says Iraqi leaders have made “satisfactory” progress on 15 of 18 benchmarks for rebuilding and that troops will begin withdrawing next year.
Bush’s supporters acknowledge that many factors besides the “surge” contributed to the progress — such as local Sunnis turning against al-Qaida in Iraq. But they say it wouldn’t have been possible without the extra forces.
Sen. Saxby Chambliss, a Republican from Moultrie, said Democrats missed an opportunity to support the war effort and are now denying the reality on the ground.
“I think without question it has worked. All you have to do is look at the level of violence over there today versus six months ago,” said Chambliss, who reluctantly supported Bush’s decision after getting assurances that the extra troops be narrowly focused. “If folks are still trying to make excuses that it may not be working, they’re living in a different world.”
Rep. Jim Marshall of Macon, the only Georgia Democrat who supported the escalation, said “the surge clearly succeeded,” calling the gains “real but fragile.”
“Renewed sectarian violence can certainly reverse it,” Marshall said. “Al-Qaida alone cannot.”
Bush acknowledged continued concerns about Iraq’s volatility on Tuesday as he announced that he will keep U.S. troop levels largely intact until next year. The president said about 8,000 combat and support troops will return home by February.
The modest reduction, which would leave about 140,000 U.S. troops in Iraq through the end of his administration, drew fresh criticism from Democrats that the war has dragged on for too long.
“Nothing disturbs me more than to see that these young men and women are still serving in Iraq, and some are going over there three or four times,” said Rep. John Lewis, an Atlanta Democrat who opposed the war from the beginning. “I voted against the surge and I have no regret about that. ... This was a war of choice, not a war of necessity, and in the long run we have created more problems than we have solved.”
Rep. Sanford Bishop, a Democrat from Albany, also stood by his opposition to the additional troops. He said Iraqi leaders still have not agreed on critical issues such as oil-sharing that could spark a new wave of violence. Bishop also said many Democrats would have backed the decision if Bush had agreed to more specific timelines.
“We have heard the media talking about the success of the surge, but the surge was not the ultimate goal,” Bishop said. “The surge was to reduce violence and create an environment to reach the other benchmarks.”