Gilchrest emerges as war's quiet critic

Strategy: The Eastern Shore Republican wants better answers from the president about Iraq.

July 03, 2005|By Gwyneth K. Shaw | Gwyneth K. Shaw,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - As the murmur of congressional criticism of the Bush administration's conduct of the war in Iraq has grown, Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest is a quiet voice in the back of the room.

He hasn't signed a resolution calling for the White House to set benchmarks for withdrawal - but he is seriously considering it. And after two trips to Iraq and countless hours of thinking, he says his opinions have evolved.

The recent evolution of the war views of Gilchrest and a handful of other Republicans on Capitol Hill is important. While their numbers are relatively small, their potential influence has grown with public doubts about Iraq.

Gilchrest wants better answers from the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. More candor, more pressure on America's allies in the Middle East to help and more confidence that there is a plan for bringing soldiers home.

"We should not be hearing the same thing over and over and over again," said Gilchrest, a who represents Maryland's Eastern Shore.

It has been more than two years since President Bush declared "mission accomplished" in Iraq, and a year since the Iraqis were given control of their government. Still, a bloody insurgency continues unabated.

Gilchrest, a former Marine Corps sergeant who was awarded a Purple Heart in Vietnam, views the current situation with a particularly rueful eye.

Like the high school social studies teacher he once was, he hears the echoes of 1966: an administration putting on a brave face, a president being pressed for greater candor, an Army facing an enemy that's tougher, and more lethal, than expected.

The somber tone of Bush's speech at Fort Bragg, N.C., last week was a good start, he said, because he senses that his colleagues now see the war, and what it will take to win it, in more realistic terms. But he still thinks the administration needs to put pressure on its Middle East allies by laying out a concrete plan for ending the United States' involvement in Iraq.

"The tragedy of the deaths are taking their toll, and we need to be competent and very intelligent," Gilchrest said. "And the way to succeed here is more with our influence diplomatically than with our guns on the ground. I can tell you that every soldier would like us to talk our way out of this rather than fight our way out of this."

Democrats had been floating another resolution calling on the administration to lay out a concrete plan for eventually withdrawing troops from Iraq for months. But when Rep. Walter B. Jones, a Republican from North Carolina, signed on to the latest version as a co-sponsor, it garnered much more attention.

Jones and Gilchrest

Gilchrest has talked with Jones - best known as the person who pushed Capitol cafeterias to sell "freedom fries" before the war - and Democratic co-sponsors several times, and is still considering whether to sign on to their resolution.

Gilchrest said he sees the bill as a way to expand what has, until now, been limited engagement from rank-and-file lawmakers in the debate over what happens now.

"I think Walter offers us an opportunity to discuss the issue at a higher level," Gilchrest said.

Rep. Neil Abercrombie, a Hawaii Democrat who is a main sponsor of the resolution, said he was not surprised when Gilchrest came to him to discuss it. They have worked together frequently on environmental issues - both are members of the House Resources Committee - and Abercrombie has come to admire his friend's interest in thinking for himself.

"He's one of the people around here who are not closed-minded or bound by ideological constraints," Abercrombie said. "He's a legislator's legislator. He's one of the most decent people I know."

Abercrombie was excited by Gilchrest's overtures, since his Vietnam record - which also includes a Bronze Star - gives him a lot of credibility in discussing the war.

The resolution calls for the administration to come up with a plan for withdrawal by the end of this year, to hand over the responsibility for securing the country to Iraqis as soon as possible, and to begin bringing troops home no later than Oct. 1, 2006.

Accountability

"We are trying to hold the Bush administration accountable to what it's already agreed to," Abercrombie said.

Bush again rejected setting a timetable in his Fort Bragg speech, repeating the argument made by others in his administration that any deadline would encourage the insurgents to simply wait out American troops.

But if the United States doesn't want a permanent presence in Iraq, Gilchrest said, laying out a plan to leave the country drives that point home - and could help prod the leaders of other nations in the area, including Saudi Arabia and Iran, to pick up some of the burden.

"No matter what you do, the insurgents aren't going to listen to you, one way or another," he said. "It's the region that we're trying to influence."

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