Washington, D.C., 18 November 2005 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. Representative John Murtha is usually regarded as a hawk -- someone who supports the military in most of what it does.
So when he made this statement at a Washington press conference on 17 November, he got immediate attention.
"It is time for a change in direction," Murtha said. "Our military is suffering. The future of our country is at risk. We cannot continue on the present course. It is evident that continued military action in Iraq is not in the best interest of the United States of America, the Iraqi people, or the Persian Gulf region."
Murtha -- who is a retired Marine colonel and a decorated Vietnam veteran -- said he wants U.S. troops out of Iraq as soon as they can be withdrawn safely. He estimated that should take about six months.
The Bush administration was clearly stung by the attack by the powerful congressman, who is the senior Democrat on the House of Representative's subcommittee that oversees defense spending.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan said it is "baffling that [Murtha] is endorsing the policy positions of ...the extreme liberal wing of the Democratic Party."
McClellan also suggested Murtha should explain "how retreating from Iraq makes America safer."
Still, the call from Murtha -- who originally supported the Iraq war but has criticized Bush's handling of it -- looks certain to intensify the debate over Iraq that is now raging in the United States.
In recent weeks the debate has seen opposition Democrats in the Senate push for a congressional investigation into whether the administration manipulated pre-war intelligence to bolster the case for invading Iraq.
And it has seen the White House, mindful of Bush's current low standings in the polls, fiercely counterattacking its critics.
Bush fired the first salvo of his political counteroffensive during a Veterans' Day [11 November] speech in the eastern state of Pennsylvania.
"Some Democrats and anti-war critics are now claiming we manipulated the intelligence and mislead the American people about why we went to war," Bush said. "These critics are fully aware that a bipartisan Senate investigation found no evidence of political pressure to change the intelligence community's judgments related to Iraq's weapons programs."
Five days later, Vice President Dick Cheney spoke more harshly during a speech in Washington, calling critics "dishonest" and "reprehensible."
"Some of the most irresponsible comments have, of course, come from politicians who actually voted in favor of authorizing the use of force against Saddam Hussein," Cheney said. "These are elected officials who had access to the intelligence and were free to draw their own conclusions. They arrived at the same judgment about Iraq's capabilities and intentions that [were] made by this administration and by the previous administration."
Not Only Democrats
While the target of White House remarks are Democrats, Republicans, too, are reflecting at least some of the dissatisfaction of the broader American populace. In the Senate, Republicans on 15 November passed a measure requiring the president to account for U.S. progress -- or a lack of it -- in the war every three months.
Republican Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska said it is acceptable and even patriotic for Americans to publicly express their doubts about any war, especially one that has so badly damaged their country's credibility.
"Trust and confidence in the United States have been seriously eroded," Hagel said. "We are seen by many in the Middle East as an obstacle to peace, an aggressor, an occupier. Our policies are a source of significant friction, not only in the [Middle East] region but in the wider international community. Our purpose and our power are questioned."
Hagel's comments notwithstanding, the criticism of Bush's war policy comes primarily from Democrats. This raises the question whether the debate over suspected intelligence manipulation is merely a particularly vicious partisan squabble.
A Deeper Problem?
Or is the problem deeper? Are the Democrats overstepping the bounds of proper political discourse by accusing him of starting a war for no good reason? On the other hand, are Cheney and other Republicans going overboard by disparaging their critics patriotism?
The Democrats should not make such accusations against Bush lightly, according to Robert Spitzer, a professor of political science at the State University of New York at Cortland.
But Spitzer tells RFE/RL that there already is enough evidence to support the Democrats' suspicions. And he says the Bush administration is working hard to divert attention from the accusations.
"There are easily a dozen books out that provide tons of evidence to support the charge that the administration did distort the evidence, at the least by selectively choosing intelligence and information that supported what they wanted to do and turning aside other information," Spitzer said. "It's a charge that has plenty of credibility, I just don't think there's any doubt about it. I think the administration wants to change the debate away from that to [questioning] the patriotism or the propriety of the people making the charges."
Like Hagel, Spitzer says it is the duty of any politician, or any citizen for that matter, to question a leader's policy.
John Samples, director of the Center for Representative Government at the Cato Institute, a Washington policy research center, however, says that in America's current political environment, it is almost irrelevant whether one side is doing the right thing or not.
Samples told RFE/RL that there was a time when Americans implicitly trusted their presidents. Then came the disastrous Vietnam War, which ended President Lyndon Johnson's political career in 1968, and the Watergate scandal, which led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon in 1973.
As a result, Samples says, American politics has turned into a brawl in which each side too often doesn't merely disagree with its opponents, but wants to destroy them.
"You wouldn't hear these kinds of charges in 1960 and 1955 because the presidency as an office had such a reputation that -- whoever the holder was above these kinds of charges," Samples said. "And all that blew up in the '70s, and we're still living in the aftermath of that volcano exploding."
Samples says no one may ever know which side is right in the current debate because the facts may be obscured by the political bloodletting.
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