Prelude to an Exit Strategy

"Victory means exit strategy, and it's important for the President to explain to us what the exit strategy is." --Texas Governor George W. Bush, April 9, 1999, on the US intervention in Kosovo

Thirty months into the Iraq War, and nearly 2,000 American deaths later, Republican leaders in Congress have yet to hold hearings on how or when to bring US troops home. So dissenting Democrats, led by California Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey, crammed into a small room in a House office building Thursday to hold an unofficial hearing on an exit strategy for Iraq.

TV cameras rolled in the back, Congressional staffers lined the walls, media vied for two dozen available seats and roughly thirty lawmakers shuffled in and out to listen or ask questions between votes.

"I had hoped that today's discussion would take place under the auspices of the House Armed Services Committee or the House International Relations Committee," Woolsey said at the outset. "But there has been very little appetite among the Congressional leadership for open discussion about how we might end the war in Iraq."

That goes for both the Republican and Democratic leadership, neither of which attended.

Woolsey modeled the day after unofficial hearings held by Representative John Conyers in June into the so-called Downing Street memos. The panel assembled included retired Gen. Joseph Hoar, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State David Mack, former Senator Max Cleland, Harvard University conflict-resolution specialist Antonia Chayes, Ken Katzman, a Middle East specialist at the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, and Iraqi-American peace activist Anas Shallal.

"Success as defined by our civilian leadership three years ago is out of reach," testified General Hoar, who headed US Central Command from 1991 to 1994.

"This counterinsurgency campaign, this budding civil war, is all about politics, ideas and religion. It cannot be won by killing Iraqis. Were this possible, the over 25,000 Iraqis killed already might have been enough." Hoar called for a high-level international envoy to help straighten out the fragile Iraqi political process, a recommendation endorsed by many of the panelists.

The hearings came a day after an especially grisly moment in Iraq, where at least a dozen attacks killed more than 160 people in Baghdad, the deadliest strike in the capital since the US invasion in March 2003. Twenty more people died Thursday morning. "Iraq is not stable and it is not stabilizing," said Katzman.

The hearings also came in the wake of the destruction wrought by Hurricane Katrina, with significant numbers of the National Guard of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama deployed in Iraq. "It is time we looked after our own backyard," said Cleland, who lost both legs and an arm in Vietnam. "We cannot do this as long as we continue to make Iraq the fifty-first state."

Much of the testimony was grim, realistic and precise; a stark antidote to the Bush Administration pep rallies normally conducted by the House and Senate. There were calls for an international peace summit, negotiations with insurgents, greater inclusiveness for minority Sunnis and a need to set a clear end goal, followed by a drawdown of US troops. "It is quite necessary that the government make a declarative statement on why we're there, with respect to permanent bases and oil," said General Hoar.

Most of the questioning came from liberal Democrats who opposed the war and who now support bringing the troops home. In January, with twenty-four co-sponsors, Woolsey introduced a resolution advocating an immediate troop withdrawal. Four months later, she won a floor vote on a modest amendment asking Bush to develop a plan for the eventual exit of US forces. One hundred twenty-two Democrats, five Republicans and one Independent voted for the proposal, roughly the same number who voted against the original war resolution. Shortly thereafter, Republican Walter Jones and Democrat Neil Abercrombie introduced legislation calling on the Administration to begin pulling out troops no later than October 1, 2006. In the Senate, Russ Feingold issued a strategy that would see all US troops withdrawn from Iraq by the end of 2006.

Ninety minutes into the proceedings, Representative Jones entered the hearing room, the only Republican present. "Thank you Congressman, you've made this bipartisan," Woolsey said with a laugh. Jones has quietly been lobbying fellow Republicans to support his "homeward bound" resolution, and he hopes to have 100 or 125 co-sponsors by the November recess. "More and more members are hearing from constituents back home," says Jones, who represents a military-heavy district in North Carolina that includes thousands of soldiers at Camp Lejeune. "We can't continue this war for three or four more years."

Iraq continues to top the list of voter anxieties, with 55 percent supporting full or partial withdrawal in a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll. A majority of the public wants money allocated for Iraq to instead pay for the reconstruction of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast.

Yet much work remains to be done in Congress to probe whether the Bush Administration intends to exit Iraq, and when. Nearly forty years ago, under the leadership of Senator J. William Fulbright, hearings conducted by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee demonstrated that the Vietnam War was unwinnable. At that time, it was Democrats and Republicans investigating a Democratic President; one establishment versus another. Today, Republicans (and many prominent Democrats) refuse to give their own "war President" a similar lashing. The question now is when Congress and the Administration will catch up to the prevailing sentiments of the citizens who elected them.

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