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Warner’s Ongoing Mission

Retiring Senator Presses for Middle Ground on Iraq

For several years, Sen. John Warner (R-Va.) has pulled off a careful balancing act between his desire to speak out against the Bush administration’s handling of the Iraq War and his steadfast loyalty to his party and the president. But now the question arises whether the 80-year-old elder statesman will view his recent retirement announcement as an excuse to tip those self-imposed scales.

“It may free him up more mentally … to speak his mind a lot more than he did,” one Warner ally said. “For him, it’s a question of, on what note do you want to go out.”

One major test of how forcefully Warner may or may not oppose the president’s war strategy could come this week in the form of his reaction to long-awaited testimony by the U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, and the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, on the successes and failures of the “surge” strategy.

“He’s in a different position than me. He’s a loyal member of the Republican Party. He’s a loyal supporter of the president. He’s tried, consistent with his own beliefs and his own conscience, to maintain those loyalties,” Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) said. “He also has a very deep conscience and a very deep feeling about the [Senate as an] institution. … He, I think, has done a very, very admirable job of balancing very competing challenges for him.”

But Levin, who continues to work closely with Warner on the Armed Services panel, said he still is trying to craft an Iraq compromise with his longtime friend and sometimes collaborator.

“We always give it our best shot because we trust each other totally,” Levin said. He added, “He will continue to try to reach some sort of common statement. … That’s his instinct.”

Indeed, Warner appears determined to continue to be one of the most resolute pursuers of the middle ground on Iraq as well as what one source described as his “very gentlemanly way” of criticizing the war.

Of course, Warner repeatedly has said he would not proffer any new war-related proposals of his own until after he hears this week’s testimony from Petraeus and Crocker. After all, it’s testimony he guaranteed would occur by Sept. 15, as the author of a provision in this year’s supplemental Iraq War spending bill that required the reports.

Still, many Democrats aren’t holding out much hope for a wholesale shift in Warner’s long-standing opposition to forcing Bush to bring troops home by a date certain.

“I wouldn’t anticipate Senator Warner’s votes or positions to change at all,” one Senate Democratic leadership aide said. “He’s always been a man of principle, he’ll always be a man of principle, and I don’t think that’ll change just because he’s announced he’s retiring.”

Neither are Senate GOP leaders particularly worried about losing one of the most credible defenders of their view that Congress should not “micromanage” the war.

“I think he is pretty close to where Petraeus and the administration will be,” Senate Minority Whip Trent Lott (R-Miss.) said of the expectation that both will call for a modest troop reduction in Iraq.

Lott added, “This has been hard for a lot of our Members. John has tried to raise some concerns, but if you go back and look where he ended up, most of the time he ended up with the majority of Republicans.”

In fact, Warner surprised Democrats earlier this year by opposing legislation he was thought to have supported. He did it, he’s said, because Democrats would not allow votes on other Republican proposals.

But Warner has left himself some room for a clean break with Bush, even as he has insisted on his preference for the White House to lead any tactical changes in Iraq.

“Am I going to suddenly go breaking? I’m going to have to evaluate it, and then, as all other Senators — we’re an independent branch of our government, coequal in many respects with authority and responsibility — we’ll have to make our decision as to what we’ll do,” he said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Aug. 26.

Warner’s office did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

For many, it’s difficult to envision Warner completely abandoning his previous stances, despite the way in which he slowly ratcheted up his criticism of the war.

Democrats and Republicans alike said Warner deeply believes in the president’s right to make military decisions, and he has been loath to use Congress’ appropriations power to compel changes.

“I think he comes to this both temperamentally and experientially with a sense of the role of the commander in chief and a sense that the Congress has a role to play, but that it’s just not as expansive or directive as I might have,” said Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), who, along with Levin, has led the Democratic push to force a change in the U.S. mission to begin bringing troops home by next spring.

Reed added, “I think this is an attitude and intellectual position he’s taken for years. What’s different is this president. I think other presidents have been wise enough to listen to his advice.”

One source familiar with the White House’s outreach to Warner said the former Navy secretary and the administration often have engaged in a diplomatic dance over what Warner wanted to say or do regarding Iraq.

The White House never has threatened Warner with any kind of retaliation, the source said. Instead, it often uses “a cap-in-hand approach.”

“They try to smother him with love, and ‘Please, don’t go out there and tell the truth,’” the source said. “But they’re genuinely solicitous of him.”

One of the reasons the White House may treat Warner so gingerly, the source explained, is because Warner usually tells them what he’s going to do before he goes public with any criticism or legislative proposal.

Even in his public breaks with the president on Iraq policy, Warner has been deferential to the White House. In his Aug. 23 call for the president to bring some troops home from Iraq by Christmas, Warner took pains to say his statement was only a suggestion that he made “with a deep sense of humility and respect” and that he was not “in any way trying to pull the rug out from under the troops.”

Still, Warner garnered national headlines that day for saying the president needs to “put some meaningful teeth” into his statements that the U.S. does not have an open-ended commitment to Iraq. Warner recommended that Bush do that by announcing he would bring as many as 5,000 of the 160,000-strong force home this year.

Of course, Warner may feel some satisfaction this week if Petraeus recommends a modest drawdown of troops in Iraq. News reports indicated last week that Petraeus was likely to tell Congress he would approve of a drawdown of 3,500 to 4,500 troops in the near future.

Still, by all accounts, Warner has been no shrinking violet during the Iraq War. Besides raising questions about the administration’s inability to find weapons of mass destruction as early as six months after the war’s onset, he used his position as Senate Armed Services chairman in 2004 to hold a hearing on the issue.

He also flouted the White House’s wishes — and even confounded some in his own party — by holding eight hearings on alleged detainee abuse at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

After returning from his ninth trip to Iraq in October, he declared that the war was “drifting sideways,” a public pronouncement that his supporters say led to the White House’s decision to implement the “surge” strategy in Iraq earlier this year.

Even though GOP term limits forced him to step down as the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee this year, he drew headlines for opposing the very strategy he had inspired. Working with Sens. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine), his resolution disapproving of the surge got 56 votes but could not overcome the 60-vote hurdle put in place to ensure passage.

Then in July, he teamed up with Senate Foreign Relations ranking member Dick Lugar (R-Ind.) on a measure that would have required the president to come up with a plan to begin removing troops from Iraq.

Though Warner has slowly intensified his criticism of the war, supporters and critics say he may eventually have to upset his carefully balanced position.

“He’s made some encouraging statements, I think, in terms of his insights … about what’s happening and what should happen,” Reed said. “He’s a very authoritative and respected voice on this matter. So the question is, would he move from the stage of advice to a much more directive legislative stance? I’d be encouraged by that very much.”

War supporter and Warner friend Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) was more blunt: “The problem is either you’re in or you’re out because you’re either going to set a date for withdrawal in one way or another … or you’re going to take the advice and counsel of Gen. Petraeus, who is succeeding in Iraq. There’s no middle ground.”

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