Challenges to Bush's war policies rising

Daschle, chairmen question parts of plan, face GOP backlash


WASHINGTON - In the first strong Democratic criticism of the Bush administration's war on terrorism, the Senate majority leader and two powerful committee chairman are questioning whether the White House is expanding its military efforts without a clear explanation of its aims.

"I don't think it would do anybody any good to second-guess what has been done to date," Sen. Thomas A. Daschle, the majority leader, told reporters yesterday. "I think it has been successful. I've said that on many, many occasions. But I think the jury's still out about future success.

"I think there is expansion without at least a clear direction," he added.

On Wednesday, Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia, chairman of the Appropriations Committee, told Defense Department officials that they should not expect "blank checks to be written" for expansion of the war effort without a clearer understanding of the administration's goals beyond Afghanistan. He complained that "there's no end in sight" to U.S. involvement there.

Such comments amount to perhaps the most searching congressional scrutiny of the Bush administration's handling of the war effort since the Sept. 11 attacks, and suggest that Democrats are prepared to use the administration's request for sharp increases in military spending as an occasion to question its broader policy goals in a midterm election year.

With U.S. forces still seeking Taliban and al-Qaida elements in Afghanistan, military advisers on the ground in the Philippines and consideration being given to disparate additional efforts in Iraq, Yemen, Colombia and the former Soviet Georgia, senior lawmakers have gone out of their way to avoid attacking the administration's foreign policy but made it clear Thursday that many questions remained unanswered.

"Clearly, we've got to find Mohammed Omar, we've got to find Osama bin Laden, and we've got to find other key leaders of the al-Qaida network, or we will have failed," Daschle said. At the same time, referring to expansion of the campaign against terror, he added: "Before we make commitments in resources, I think we need to have a clearer understanding of what the direction will be."

The Senate Republican leader, Trent Lott, promptly issued a statement rebuking Daschle, saying: "How dare Senator Daschle criticize President Bush while we are fighting our war on terrorism, especially when we have troops in the field? He should not be trying to divide our country while we are united."

But even as Daschle spoke, Sen. Joseph Biden Jr. of Delaware, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, complained in a meeting with reporters that the administration had not kept up consultations with Congress or international allies as it seeks to expand efforts beyond Afghanistan.

"One is clear, everyone signed on: Terror," Biden said of the administration's policy goals. "Now, we are in some senses legitimately, I believe, extrapolating that to other dangers," he said, referring in part to countries with weapons of mass destruction like Iraq, Iran and North Korea, which Bush called an "axis of evil."

Biden added, "You've got to make the case all over again, in order to get the cooperation.

"Are they doing that?" he asked. "I haven't seen any evidence of that. Does it mean they don't plan on doing that? Are they waiting to get all their eggs in one basket and know exactly what they want before they go out to put that case together? Hope so."

Not all the Democratic critics agree with one another. For instance, in contrast to Byrd's worries that the United States could become enmeshed in Afghanistan, Biden argued Thursday that without continued U.S. military help and an expansion of the international peacekeeping force beyond Kabul, the fledgling Afghan government there would collapse.

If that happens, Biden said, "I think we will have made a tragic mistake in terms of our interests."

In a sign of the price any politician faces for criticizing a president with approval ratings above 80 percent, the House Republican whip, Tom DeLay of Texas, issued a one-word response to Daschle's comments: "Disgusting."

The White House press secretary, Ari Fleischer, said simply, "Some people may want to run for president some day." He added: "This is about much more than Osama bin Laden; this is about the entire terrorist network."

"The president hopes that the Congress will continue its bipartisan spirit and support the defense budget he sent up there," he said.

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