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Democrats in New Congress Seek to Make Mark on US Foreign Policy


Emboldened by their electoral victories that gave them majorities in the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate, congressional Democrats are hammering out their agenda for next year. Deborah Tate files a background report looking at how the shift in power on Capitol Hill may impact U.S. foreign policy, and in particular, the war in Iraq.

Although domestic issues traditionally decide midterm elections, foreign policy appeared to drive this year's contest to a large extent.

"The people in America want change," said Senator Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat. "They are not happy with what is happening overseas in Iraq."

Public opinion polls show that this month's election was in large part a referendum on the Bush administration and its policy toward Iraq.

When they take control of Congress next year, Democrats are vowing to press the administration to change course in Iraq. Although many Democrats are divided on how to proceed, a number of prominent Democrats are urging a phased U.S. troop withdrawal in an effort to press the Iraqis to take more responsibility for ensuring the security and stability of their country.

Senator Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat, is to become chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee in January.

"Most Democrats share the view that we should pressure the White House to commence the phased redeployment of U.S. troops from Iraq in four to six months, to begin these redeployments, and thereby to make it clear to the Iraqis that our presence is not open-ended, and that they must take the necessary political compromises to preserve Iraq as a nation," he said. "We cannot save the Iraqis from themselves."

Some Republicans agree with that approach, but not all of them.

Senator John McCain of Arizona, a member of the Armed Services Committee, advocates increasing U.S. troop strength in Iraq. He spoke on NBC's Meet the Press Sunday.

"There are some who say we can stabilize the situation and withdraw gradually," he said. "I do not accept that. I think that what is going to happen is that as you withdraw, you will see sectarian violence increase, you will see involvement by Iran and Syria, and I think you will see a serious situation."

The Bush administration has expressed concern about a U.S. withdrawal from the country before a stable, secure Iraq is established, saying that could leave a failed state that is a haven for terrorists and a threat to the region.

"I do not think we need a lot more pressure on the Iraqis to help them do what they need to do," said Josh Bolton, White House chief of staff, who spoke on ABC's This Week program. "Sure, we are all saying the Iraqis need to step up and get their own situation under control. It is a sovereign government. We need to treat them as a sovereign government. But we also need to give them the support they need to succeed."

Many Democrats argue they are not advocating an immediate and total withdrawal from Iraq. They also say they do not plan to cut off funding for U.S. troops serving in Iraq.

The White House underscores the point that even though Democrats will be in the majority in Congress beginning in January, they will have limited ability to control defense and foreign policy issues. Under the U.S. Constitution, the president commands the armed forces and oversees diplomacy with other nations.

But in the aftermath of his Republican Party's electoral defeats in Congress, President Bush has signaled a willingness to look at another way forward in Iraq.

"I am open to any ideas that will help us achieve our goals of defeating the terrorists, and ensuring that Iraq's democratic government succeeds," he said.

Toward that end, he has nominated former Central Intelligence Agency director Bob Gates to replace Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

Gates, who faces a Senate confirmation vote next month, has served on the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, which is expected to recommend proposals that news reports say could offer President Bush a way to change tactics in Iraq.

While Democrats hope to influence Iraq policy in the future, they also plan to hold hearings to look back at decisions made by the administration in the run-up to the war and in the prosecution of the war.

"The success of the war in Iraq and the success in the war against terrorism will come only if we make good decisions," said Senator Byron Dorgan, a North Dakota Democrat. "To date, those who have made those decisions about both have not been held accountable for, in some cases, some very major mistakes."

The Senate Intelligence and Foreign Relations Committees plan hearings on the administration's handling of Iraq.

The Senate Judiciary Committee is expected to conduct hearings into the Justice Department's conduct in the fight against terrorism, from secret searches to wiretaps to the treatment of terrorism detainees.

On other foreign policy matters, Democrats may urge the Bush administration to drop its opposition to holding direct talks with its adversaries, such as Iran, North Korea and Syria. Senator Joe Biden, who is to become chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee next year, has long argued that the administration's reluctance to talk to Iran and Syria has hurt efforts toward ending the violence in Iraq.

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