Jan 12 2007

Delegation sees signs in state of war weariness

Birmingham News

By MARY ORNDORFF

 

Alabama's congressional delegation, previously a source of unequivocal support for the war in Iraq, has a newfound anxiety that reflects the growing frustration among constituents found in the latest statewide poll.

Sixty percent of Alabamians believe the United States is not winning the war in Iraq, according to the Capital Survey Research Center in Montgomery. That bleak assessment is being voiced in Washington, where Alabama's seven Republicans, especially, had been among the most ardent backers of President Bush's policies in Iraq. After years of refusing to affix blame for mistakes and conveying optimism about the final outcome, there are fresh signs of doubt.

"Will this surge of troops - 20,000 or 40,000 or whatever is next - and the cost in material and lives and everything else, is that going to stabilize that country?" asked Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala. "If this doesn't work, we've got real chaos. And I'm not sure it will work."

GOP members back war:

None of the GOP members of Congress from Alabama are directly opposing Bush's latest strategy to deepen U.S. involvement in the war, and some already have announced their endorsement of it. But that many of them are publicly expressing caution at all is a major development for a state that has reliably supported Bush and the war.

"I think people are growing weary," said Rep. Robert Aderholt, R-Haleyville. "Quite honestly, there should have been more troops there several months ago. Is it too late now to turn things around?"

The new statewide survey bears out the weariness. In a poll of 508 registered voters in Alabama, 43 percent approved of the way Bush is handling the war, down from 54 percent in May 2004, according to the polling results provided by the center's director, Gerald Johnson.

The results also show increased polarization. The percentage of Alabamians who strongly approved of Bush's handling of the war fell from 33 percent in 2004 to 15 percent this year. The percentage of those who strongly disapproved rose from 31 percent to 39 percent.

"The people of Alabama are concerned because they see more of the same and they see no movement and they see the country falling apart," Shelby said. "They see a lot of young people killed and a lot more wounded and they don't see the end game. I wish in retrospect two years ago we had sent 200,000 troops, but those were probably lost opportunities."

Shelby, who was on record in summer 2002 supporting a preemptive strike on Iraq, said he would not endorse a move to cut off funding for an increase in troop presence. But he's traveled the state in recent weeks for his annual series of town hall meetings and heard the impatience straight from Alabama citizens.

War's `not worth it':

The percentage of Alabamians who feel the war is worth the effort also has dropped in the past two years. More than 54 percent of Alabamians said that, when the costs and benefits are considered, the war in Iraq is "not worth it." In May 2004, it was closer to 44 percent, according to Johnson's results.

Alabama voters may not have expressed their dissatisfaction at the ballot box in November, when Alabama's seven House members were re-elected by wide margins, but they seem to be voicing it now. In the new poll, 48 percent said they disapprove of the decision to go to war in the first place, compared to 40 percent two years ago.

"The pendulum of public opinion has shifted now in a pretty significant way against what we've done and where we are and what we've accomplished to date," said Rep. Jo Bonner, R-Mobile. "Unfortunately, a lot of good has been accomplished but no one wants to talk about that because the reality is there is a just a mess out there that has contributed to a very sour public mood right now."

Bonner stopped short of saying Bush's revamped strategy is his last chance at success. "But I don't know that the American people, based on the message that came on Nov. 7, believe there are a lot more chances out there," he said.

Even Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala. - who has backed Bush's policy at every turn, including giving the executive branch more power to collect intelligence and handle prisoners with fewer legal constraints - acknowledged the setbacks.

"The situation in Iraq is grave and things are not going as well as we want and need them to go," said Sessions. He called the troop increase a "bitter pill" but said Bush justified it in his address to the nation Wednesday night.

Davis most skeptical:

Among Alabama's two Democrats, Rep. Artur Davis of Birmingham has been the most skeptical of the Bush policy even though he voted for emergency funding for it.

On Wednesday, he was critical of the surge on new troops and agreed there has been a change among Alabama Republicans.

"I think my colleagues are listening to their constituents and realize that they no longer support the policy," Davis said.

Rep. Bud Cramer of Huntsville originally voted to authorize the president to go to war. "But I'm troubled by what I've learned since that time," said Cramer, a veteran House Democrat. "A lot of what we've done in Iraq has worked against us. We've provided a terrible environment for the U.S. and a good environment for the terrorists. The more you learn, the more you want to shake somebody."

Bonner placed some of the blame on his own party in Congress.

"We as a Republican majority didn't do a good enough job asking the tough questions that should have been asked over the last few years, and perhaps we gave too much freedom to the administration without that intense oversight," Bonner said. "I think the administration is going to find out what oversight means now."