Hagel urges strategy to get U.S. out of Iraq

GOP senator compares the conflict to Vietnam

Mideast `destabilization' seen

August 22, 2005|By Josh Meyer | Josh Meyer,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON - As President Bush prepares to hit the road this week to bolster public support for his policies in Iraq, a senior Republican senator said yesterday that the United States needs to craft an exit strategy because its continued presence has created a potential Vietnam.

"We should start figuring out how we get out of there," Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska said on ABC's This Week. "Our involvement there has destabilized the Middle East. And the longer we stay there, I think the further destabilization will occur."

Hagel, the second-ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a prospective presidential candidate in 2008, was among several senators from both parties who used the Sunday talk shows to express growing frustration over the administration's handling of the war and the occupation.

A decorated Vietnam War veteran, Hagel has been critical of the Iraq war for some time. But his remarks yesterday, along with those of other lawmakers, appeared to mark a significant escalation in the scope and breadth of the criticism of Bush and his administration's handling of the Iraq effort.

"It seems that the ice is cracking in a bipartisan way in terms of congressional dissatisfaction with President Bush's policy in Iraq. The silence in terms of directly criticizing the administration's handling of Iraq - its mismanagement - has come to an end," said Marshall Wittman, a senior fellow at the Democratic Leadership Council.

Although his independent, centrist organization is affiliated with the Democratic Party, Wittman has formerly served as a senior aide to Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, and in the administration of former President George Bush.

He noted that some who spoke yesterday, such as Sens. Russell D. Feingold of Wisconsin and Carl Levin of Michigan, were Democrats who had frequently criticized the administration over Iraq, while others were staunch Republicans.

"The change now is that Republicans for the first time will assume oversight of the administration's policy," Wittman said.

In recent weeks, opinion polls have shown a rising skepticism over Bush's handling of the war, which has caused the deaths of more than 1,860 U.S. troops and wounded thousands. In their comments yesterday, several lawmakers made note of the public's apparent unease.

Even those defending Bush tempered their support with expressions of concern about what they described as a disconnect between the administration and the public. Sen. Trent Lott, a Mississippi Republican and former majority leader, said his constituents, despite their "very pro-military" feelings, were beginning to question whether the United States is doing enough to help establish an independent Iraqi government and make enough progress to allow troop withdrawals anytime soon.

"They still believe very strongly in President Bush," Lott said on NBC's Meet The Press. "But they have a right to ask their elected officials, you know, `What is the plan?'"

The White House said Bush would address such concerns in speeches this week. In response to the lawmakers' comments, White House spokeswoman Maria Tamburri said that Bush believes "a free and democratic Iraq will help transform a dangerous region and lay the foundation of peace for our children and grandchildren."

Three GOP senators - Hagel, Lott and George Allen of Virginia - said Bush could not simply pull out of Iraq and leave a vacuum that would further destabilize the Middle East.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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