U.S. Congressional Democrats are vowing to press for a change of course in U.S. policy on Iraq if they regain control of one or both houses of Congress in Tuesday's midterm elections, as public opinion polls suggest is possible. VOA's Deborah Tate looks at how Democrats plan to influence such policy if they do win victories at the polls.
With the increasing U.S. death toll and continuing violence in Iraq, the war has become a key issue in this midterm election.
Public opinion polls indicate Democrats are in a strong position to pick up at least 15 seats needed to wrest control from Republicans in the 435-member House, and could possibly win the six seats they need to take back control of the 100-member Senate. Polls suggest voter dissatisfaction with President Bush's handling of the Iraq war is what is helping the Democrats.
Senator Carl Levin, the top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, says the midterm elections have become a referendum on the war. "There is going to be a very powerful message to change course in Iraq next Tuesday," he said
Democrats, if they win control of the House and Senate, would be in a position to influence Iraq policy, as they would assume chairmanships of congressional committees.
Senator Levin, for example, would become chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. He has called for a phased withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq beginning next month. It is a plan, he told reporters in a conference call, that voters would essentially be endorsing if they return control of Congress to the Democrats. "The message will hopefully be a (change to a) Democratic Congress, and if that is the result, I believe that will be read correctly as a very strong message to the President that the American people want to change course in Iraq, and want to begin a reduction in our presence there by the end of the year," he said.
But Democrats are divided over whether and how many troops to withdraw within a certain time frame.
It is a point President Bush underscored at a campaign appearance for Republican Senator Conrad Burns in Montana Wednesday. "We're in the middle of a war on terror, and one of the most fundamental fights is in Iraq, and yet the Democrats have no plan for victory. They have no idea how to win. Harsh criticism is not a plan for victory," he said.
President Bush opposes any timetable for a phased withdrawal of troops, and criticizes Democrats who support the idea as, in his words, cut and run Democrats.
But the chairman of the Democratic Party, Howard Dean, argues that Democrats do not want an immediate pullout of troops. He made his point in a recent CBS Face the Nation program. "The president will still be in charge of foreign policy and the military. So the influence of a Democratic Congress will be, I think,a positive influence, but I don't imagine that we're suddenly going to force the president to reverse his course. We don't have the ability to do that. But I think we will put some pressure on him to have some benchmarks, some timetables and a real plan other than stay the course," he said.
Democrats also say if they do take control of Congress, they would urge the administration to press the Iraqi government to do more to make the political compromises necessary to bring stability to their country.
Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution has co-authored a book that advises Democrats about foreign policy. "If Democrats do win, I would propose the following: that President Bush and the leadership of the Congress actually try to work out a basic concept, where they will agree that Prime Minister al Maliki is doing a bad job in Iraq right now. The only way we have any hope of salvaging the situation is if he or someone else in that position does a much better job on issues such as ensuring equal sharing of all oil revenue for all Iraqis forever, regardless of what province you are from on a per capita basis, equal sharing, on issues like rehabilitating former Baathists, who do not have blood on their hands personally, so they can rejoin public life; in other words, dealing with legitimate Sunni-Shi'ite grievances," he said.
Besides looking ahead with respect to Iraq, Democrats are also planning to look back, if they retake control of Congress. Democrats are vowing to hold hearings on what led to the administration's decision to go to war in Iraq, as well as investigate the misuse of government funds spent by U.S. contractors in Iraq. "That is something that is needed regardless of who is in control. There should have been a commission looking into the whole contracting errors and worse. There have been some real corrupt practices here which need to be investigated," said Senator Levin.
Besides choosing lawmakers, voters in several states will also have a chance to directly express their opinion about the war. A referendum will appear on the ballot in cities in Massachusetts, Wisconsin and Illinois, asking voters whether the United States should immediately withdraw troops from Iraq.