A G.O.P. Senator Charts a Middle Path

Posted on September 3, 2007

MURFREESBORO, Tenn., Aug. 30 — Senator Lamar Alexander, the Tennessee Republican and career consensus seeker, finds himself in a familiar position when it comes to the war in Iraq: somewhere in the middle. With Congress set to take pivotal votes on the war soon after lawmakers begin returning to Washington on Tuesday, radio advertisements in Knoxville from a group that supports the Bush administration are urging voters to call lawmakers and demand they stand firm on Iraq, a plea that sends as many as 25 telephone calls per day in support of President Bush to Mr. Alexander’s local office. In Nashville, on the edge of the campus of Vanderbilt University, scores of antiwar demonstrators gathered recently at the entrance to Centennial Park to read solemnly a toll of the war dead and pass out fliers encouraging people to call Tennessee politicians “often” to push for a troop withdrawal. Organizers, who had Mr. Alexander’s office number at the top of their list, considered it a pretty fair turnout for Nashville, the country-and-western capital that practically banished the Dixie Chicks for their anti-Bush comments in 2003. Mr. Alexander, who is positioned to play a central role in the coming Iraq debate, is in neither camp, leaving both sides frustrated. He is opposed to the fixed withdrawal date sought by many Democrats but has bucked the administration by pushing for a change of mission in Iraq and the formal adoption of the recommendations put forward by the Iraq Study Group. “I am even more convinced that I am right,” said Mr. Alexander, who was among the many lawmakers from both parties to make a personal inspection of conditions in Iraq during the Congressional recess. Since then, he has traveled his state, laying out his views on the war, raising money for a re-election bid and touching base with constituents at events like a meeting on new financing for math and science in Murfreesboro on the campus of Middle Tennessee State University. While September once loomed as a likely turning point for the Congressional debate over the debate, the political center of gravity on what to do about Iraq does not appear to have shifted significantly in the month Congress has been away. The White House has made some headway in convincing lawmakers that the escalation of American troops in Iraq has improved security conditions there, and lawmakers of both parties say they have seen such evidence themselves. Yet there is little sign of the political improvement that was supposed to follow the troop buildup, they say. Some lawmakers who visited Iraq also got a taste of the risks faced by American troops when their aircraft was shot at by an insurgent missile. Mr. Alexander and many other members of Congress say that though they are struggling with what to do about the war, they do not expect a series of pending government reports to make their job much easier. They say that coming reviews from General David H. Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker, the top American government officials in Iraq, will most likely present a mixed picture, and may well clash with independent assessments of the state of Iraq sought by Congress. “I think the report will be in several directions, but it won’t be a clear path forward,” said Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, who is also a potential swing vote on Iraq policy. “Those of us who are concerned about the current policy are going to be facing the same kind of choices and dilemmas we did prior to the report.” Mr. Alexander, who is up for re-election next year, has served as governor and as president of the University of Tennessee. He was secretary of education under the first President Bush and has twice run for president himself. As he toured the state recently, Mr. Alexander took the opportunity to explain his approach on Iraq, which essentially boils down to gradually shifting United States forces from direct combat operations to more training and equipping of Iraqi forces, with a concentration on stabilizing the country province by province. He said such a strategy could lead to a significant drawdown of troops within a year or slightly longer. Despite the gravity of the issue, Mr. Alexander typically had to raise the subject on his own or respond to news media questions on the subject; he was not pressed on it directly by the public even after a detailed talk on Iraq at a crowded Rotary Club meeting in Jackson or his appearance in Murfreesboro. Representative Jim Cooper, a Democrat who appeared with Mr. Alexander in Nashville, said a certain numbness had set in among Tennesseans when it came to the war. “It is kind of like a low-grade fever,” Mr. Cooper said. “It worries them, but they are so used to the drumbeat of death, destruction and confusion they don’t know how to react.” Mr. Alexander said it would be a mistake to interpret silence as indifference, however, considering the thousands of Tennessee residents in the National Guard who have served multiple tours in Iraq. And General Petraeus, the former commander of the 101st Airborne Division — which straddles the Tennessee-Kentucky state line — remains a popular figure here. Mr. Alexander said he did hear from agitated Tennesseans, some of whom had called to tell him he was undermining the president. He hears from the other side as well. At the antiwar vigil near Vanderbilt, protesters dismissed the senator’s stance as posturing, since he does not back a firm withdrawal date. “It is just cover,” said Myra Sloan, who helped coordinate the event with the group MoveOn.org. Mr. Alexander shrugs off such criticism, saying that at this stage in his long career he has to do what he believes is best. And what he says he thinks is best is for Congress and the president is to find common ground on a practical but effective way out of Iraq, and for both sides to back away from partisanship over the war. His push could find a more receptive audience in the Senate now that Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the majority leader, said he might be more open to compromise after blocking a vote on an Iraq plan offered by Mr. Alexander and Senator Ken Salazar, Democrat of Colorado. “We just can’t keep shouting at one another,” Mr. Alexander said, adding. “I think it is inexcusable for United States senators to be lecturing Baghdad about being in a political stalemate, yet we can’t come up with a consensus ourselves.”