With President Bush set to offer Congress his assessment of the surge strategy and Congress clamoring for troop withdrawal, senators took up the Iraq debate again, clashing over the fundamental question: whether U.S. troops are adding to the chaos in Iraq or tamping it down.
As the president pleaded for patience in a Cleveland speech, National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley, slated to give a surge assessment to Congress later this week, roamed Senate office buildings attempting to shore up support for the surge strategy as fissures in GOP support continue.
Senate Democrats, who advocate a timeline for withdrawal, are using the 2008 Defense Authorization Act and the debate surrounding it to test waning Republican support of the president's Iraq policy.
On the Senate floor, American history invaded Iraq as senators from both parties defended differing opinions on the surge through stark analogies between the current Iraq involvement and the withdrawal from Vietnam in the 1970s.
McCain Defends the Troop Surge
In an impassioned floor speech, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., returning from his sixth trip to Iraq last week, first defended the troop surge in plain language.
"If we leave Iraq prematurely, jihadists around the world will interpret the withdrawal as their great victory against our great power," McCain said.
McCain also described an Iraq withdrawal as tantamount to repeating the mistakes of Vietnam.
"Then, too, the argument in the United States focused primarily on whether U.S. forces should pull out. But many who supported that withdrawal in the name of human rights did not foresee the calamity that followed which included genocide in Cambodia, tens of thousands slaughtered in Vietnam by the North Vietnamese and the tragedy of hundreds of thousands of boat people," McCain said.
"I saw it once before," said McCain, who spent years as a prisoner of war when his fighter jet was shot down over Vietnam.
"I saw a defeated military and I saw how long it took a military that was defeated to recover. And I saw a divided nation beset by assassinations and riots and a breakdown in a civil society."
McCain admitted that the Iraqi government is not performing well and the violence there is unacceptable.
But the Arizona senator advocated giving the president's surge a chance and took a swipe at the policy decisions put into motion by former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and former U.S. Iraq commander Gen. George Casey. McCain said ending the surge is not a change in course, rather a "a return to the failed Rumsfeld-Casey strategy."
"We can be sure that if the United States senate should try to end a new strategy just as it is beginning, it is sure to fail," said McCain.
Biden Describes a 'Saigon Revisited'
Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., drew his own analogy of a "Saigon revisited" and disagreed with McCain's take.
"We will be lifting American personnel off the roofs of buildings in the Green Zone if we do not change policy and pretty drastically. Because not a single person in here who knows anything about the military who can tell me they think there's any possibility of us sustaining 160,000 forces in Iraq this time next year," Biden said.
Biden continued: "What my friend from Arizona did not say -- and he knows a great deal about this -- leading generals in the military say straightforwardly, we are breaking -- let me emphasize that -- breaking the United States military."
Amendments to the Defense Bill
Democrats and a growing number of Republicans contend the surge has already failed.
Sens. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chair of the Armed Services Committee, and Jack Reed, D-R.I., announced their latest "phased redeployment" proposal at a Capitol Hill press conference.
Offered as an amendment to the bill, the Levin-Reed amendment would set April 30, 2008, as an end date for transitioning U.S. troops out of a combat role in Iraq. Those remaining would focus efforts on force protection, training of Iraqi forces and conducting specific counter-terror operations.
When asked about the potential for a U.S. drawdown to create more chaos in Iraq, Levin said, "What we're not comfortable with is the huge chaos which exists in Iraq right now and American troops being in the middle of a civil war…that's what we're trying to end by forcing the Iraqi leaders to accept responsibility for their country."
(Other congressional proposals being packaged in various amendments with the 2008 Defense Authorization Act and aimed at a policy shift in Iraq include leave time, revoking war authorization and implementing all the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group.)
Still, members of the GOP, like Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who supports McCain's position, contend the surge is working and the consequences of withdrawal would be catastrophic.
"Do we want to be the calvary for al Qaeda?" Graham said on the Senate floor. "All the troops need is additional capacity to defeat al Qaeda. That additional capacity has been made by the surge. The old strategy of just training and staying behind walls, failed. The new strategy is working."
The Larger Debate
While the Democrats want to draw down troops, they won't say by exactly how much. Levin will not say how many troops he thinks should be in Iraq after the role transition because he said specific numbers would divert Americans from the larger debate.
"We don't want to get mired down into a specific debate as to how many troops would remain for these limited missions. That would deflect the debate from where we think it must be. And that is: Do we want to change course in Iraq or not? Do we want to end this open-ended commitment of American forces in the middle of a civil war or not? That's what we want the debate to center on rather than the number of troops that would be present after the transition is completed on April 30."
Reed, who like McCain visited Iraq over the Fourth of July holiday, pointed out that similar provisions have gained momentum and progressively gained more votes. From 39 votes in 2006 to 49 votes in March 2007, to the terms included in the (vetoed) supplemental later in the spring that garnered 51.
Later on the Senate floor, Biden said, "It's long past time for our Republican colleagues to join us in what I believe they know to be right -- to force the president to drastically change course in Iraq."
As Democrats look to the vote and debate surrounding the defense bill to flex their congressional muscle and to make good on the midterm election promises that earned them majority rule, it will also showcase a fractured GOP and war-torn Congress.