By Russell Berman - 10/25/11 09:00 AM EDT
President Obama’s announcement of a final withdrawal of American forces from Iraq is highlighting a Republican divide on foreign policy.
While GOP presidential candidates and a trio of hawkish senators have condemned the president’s decision, House Republicans have reacted with a mixture of praise, muted criticism or, in the case of some leaders, silence.
From other Republicans there was both skepticism and relief, reflecting the sentiments of constituents who have grown tired of the toll of war.
“We’ve all been to a lot of funerals,” said Rep. Tom Rooney (R-Fla.).
Obama announced the decision to withdraw all remaining troops on Friday after the administration failed to secure an agreement with the Iraqi government to keep a limited U.S. force in the country. Administration officials say discussions over Iraq’s security needs are ongoing, but they characterize the U.S.-Iraq relationship as similar to partnerships the U.S. has with any other sovereign country.
Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) was the only member of the House GOP leadership team to issue a statement on the declaration that the eight-year-old U.S. war will come to a close by the end of the year. Boehner credited the leadership of both Presidents George W. Bush and Obama and only hinted at criticism that the president was pulling out all U.S. troops without leaving a residual force to protect gains made in recent years.
“While I’m concerned that a full withdrawal could jeopardize those gains, I’m hopeful that both countries will work together to guarantee that a free and democratic Iraq remains a strong and stable partner for the United States in the Middle East,” Boehner said.
A Boehner spokesman, Michael Steel, told The Hill on Monday that the Speaker remains concerned about the president’s decision, given the consensus view earlier in the year that a residual U.S. force would be needed.
“During Boehner’s visit to Iraq in April, he heard from everyone — both from the Iraqi prime minister and American military commanders and diplomats — that there would be a need for some residual force of U.S. armed forces after the end of this year to ensure the gains we’ve made are protected,” Steel said. “If that is no longer true, the White House should explain why — and if it is true, it obviously raises serious concerns.”
A far harsher assessment came from Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), who for years have pushed aggressively for a prolonged U.S. presence in Iraq.
McCain called Obama’s decision a “serious mistake,” and Graham said the administration “failed” in Iraq. On the campaign trail, GOP presidential front-runner Mitt Romney lambasted Obama for what he called “an astonishing failure” to reach an agreement with the Iraqi government. Other Republican candidates have accused the president of making a political decision to pull out all troops so that during next year’s campaign he could claim to have kept his promise to end the Iraq war.
Yet the condemnations from Republican hawks and White House contenders contrasted with reactions from many rank-and-file GOP lawmakers, whose statements hailed the definitive end of a war that had grown deeply unpopular with the American public.
In an interview on Monday, Rohrabacher said leaving a small residual force would “just make our guys targets for a longer period of time.”
“We shouldn’t be begging someone to let us keep our troops in his country and waste our own military resources and sacrifice the lives of our people,” he said. “Begging someone to let us do that is just idiotic.”
Rohrabacher is one of a number of House Republicans — both veterans and Tea Party freshmen — who have become more skeptical of U.S. military intervention abroad, especially with the nation in dire fiscal straits at home. The current dynamic is a shift from the GOP of the last decade, which gave Bush steadfast support in the U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“Most of us who went along with the invasion of Iraq are sorry about that, because there is no benefit to us that we have received that is worth the price that we paid there,” Rohrabacher said.
He criticized both McCain, the GOP presidential nominee in 2008, and Romney for voicing a foreign-policy message that he suggested had long ago gone out of favor, and he described a foreign-policy “division on what kind of strategy should be used” within the GOP.
“I think John McCain gets carried away by his own military bravado,” Rohrabacher said.
Of Romney, he added: “I hope Mitt Romney understands that the people in the United States are war-weary and are no longer impressed with chest-pounding and military bravado. I think that’s what got us into Iraq in the first place with George W.”
Rooney, a member of the Armed Services Committee, voiced general support for the president’s decision but raised questions about the breakdown in negotiations with the Iraqi government.
Rooney was a leader in the House GOP’s clash with Obama over his decision to intervene in Libya without seeking congressional authorization.
In other foreign-policy areas, however, the new majority has avoided confrontation, and Boehner praised Obama’s handling of Iraq and Afghanistan earlier this month. Boehner could open up a new line of criticism on Tuesday, when he delivers a speech on U.S. policy toward Russia.
“I think a lot of people appreciate what he’s done foreign-policy-wise,” Rooney said. He quickly added, however: “But it’s not going to win him reelection.