Memphis Commercial Appeal - Bartholomew Sullivan
WASHINGTON -- An increasingly unpopular war and a looming election year are inspiring a host of ideas for a way forward in Iraq. In the midst of conflicting policy options, U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., says he's found the one plan around which a majority in the Senate can build a consensus.
Since January, Alexander has urged President Bush to follow the recommendations of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group (ISG) led by former secretary of State James A. Baker and former Indiana congressman Lee H. Hamilton. A cornerstone of the plan is to get American troops out of the combat business and into training and equipping Iraqi forces.
Last week, in an interview in his lime green office in the Dirksen Building, where antique long rifles hang over the door, Alexander explained the genesis of the idea, the trouble he has had getting it considered by both the Senate's Democratic leadership and by the president, and his view of what a victory might look like.
"Our biggest problem is the enemy thinks we're divided and we need the government to speak with one voice," Alexander said.
The state's senior senator and two-term governor is up for re-election next year, and although no Democrat has announced a sure intention to run against him, he has been targeted by a group of Bush loyalists for not toeing the line on Iraq. Calling themselves Freedom's Watch, they're spending $15 million to run ads in Tennessee with the theme "when America goes to war, victory is the only outcome."
The ads generate about 25 calls a day to Alexander's Nashville office, said press secretary Lee Pitts.
"Obviously, I'm sensitive to political concerns and of course I'm running for re-election next year, but I'm -- on this issue, especially, when so many Tennesseans, so many Americans, are risking their lives -- and maybe especially at this stage in my career, I'm trying to do my best to do what I think is right," Alexander said.
"I have occasional Republican supporters say to me, 'support the president,' and we have MoveOn.org and people on the other side. ... What I think I'm elected to do is not come up here and take a position but come up here and try to get a solution."
With much of the country anticipating the report this Tuesday from Gen. David H. Petraeus, the commander in Iraq, Alexander hopes he too will get behind the ISG recommendations.
Alexander uses a historical analogy to suggest a strategy that could bolster President Bush's legacy. After Harry Truman lost both houses of Congress and his poll numbers plunged, he sent Gen. George C. Marshall to Republican leaders in 1947 to win bipartisan support for rebuilding Europe, now known as The Marshall Plan.
"Truman was at the bottom of the barrel then, and now he's regarded as a near-great president," Alexander says, noting the close Bush parallel.
Alexander joked that one often has to say the same thing two or three times to get anyone's attention in the U.S. Senate. After two Senate floor speeches about the ISG, first Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., then Sen. Ken Salazar, D-Colo., approached him with a plan for a bipartisan way to deal with Iraq. They introduced the Alexander-Salazar amendment in June and it now has 15 sponsors, eight Democrats and seven Republicans.
"The Iraq Study Group's recommendations are a roadmap to creating a new and successful policy for the war in Iraq," Salazar said Friday. "The Group's recommendations remain just as viable today as they were when they were released last December."
Salazar said he was proud to be working with his 14 co-sponsors.
"An encouraging aspect of the current Iraq debate is the increased interest in the ISG recommendations," Salazar added. "As we wait to hear from General Petreaus ... and continue our debate on how we will move forward in Iraq, our bill is attracting attention as a possible bipartisan solution. I believe it is a vehicle for compromise during this next stage of debate, and I think there is a general feeling that Congress and the American people want to find common ground on this vital issue."
Competing for Senate attention are recommendations from the Independent Commission on the Security Forces of Iraq, released Thursday. Michael Heidingsfield, the president of the Memphis and Shelby County Crime Commission, was a member of that group and has his own idea for a way forward.
Like Armed Services Committee Sens. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., and John Warner, R-Va., and Susan Collins, R-Maine, Heidingsfield said Friday that he's concerned about securing Iraq's borders along Syria and Iran.
With other proposals calling for immediate withdrawal, a timetable for a troop draw down, or continuing the surge failing to reach consensus -- and the 60 votes needed under the rules of the Senate to end debate and go to a floor vote -- Alexander reiterated that the ISG is the best way forward.
Alexander invoked his grandfather, an engineer for the Santa Fe railroad, and what happened when he drove locomotives onto a roundtable to set them off on a new track.
"If Congress were to adopt the Baker-Hamilton recommendations, our country would be going in a different direction in Iraq, no matter what," he said, "even if the Democrats don't like the engineer."
Washington correspondent Bartholomew Sullivan can be reached at (202) 408-2726.
The way forward
Co-sponsors of the Alexander-Salazar Iraq Study Group amendment:
Ken Salazar, Colorado
Mark Pryor, Arkansas
Robert Casey, Pennsylvania
Blanche Lincoln, Arkansas
Bill Nelson, Florida
Mary Landrieu, Louisiana
Claire McCaskill, Missouri
Kent Conrad, North Dakota
Lamar Alexander, Tennessee
Bob Bennett, Utah
Judd Gregg, New Hampshire
John Sununu, New Hampshire
Susan Collins, Maine
Pete Domenici, New Mexico
Arlen Specter, Pennsylvania