War proponents have seized on the words of Rep. John Murtha, D-PA, who said Thursday, following a visit to Iraq, that the troop surge is working - a seeming contradiction from earlier criticism.
But the congressman's statement was far more nuanced than what is being reported and echoes his previous statements praising the U.S. military's efforts.
Speaking via teleconference to reporters in four different cities, Murtha did acknowledge that the surge, which he had firmly criticized, has led to military successes. But he also warned repeatedly that the Iraqis were not doing enough to capitalize on those gains.
"I think the surge is working but that's only one element. It's working because of the increase in troops," he said, "but the thing that has to happen is that the Iraqis have to do this themselves..."
(The caveat was all but ignored by some conservative critics, one of whom described Murtha's claim as the equivalent of "hell freezing over.")
Since expressing skepticism over the war in November 2005, Murtha has consistently applauded the capabilities of the troops but also emphasized that, in the absence of political progress among the Iraqi government, their work would be for naught. When President Bush rolled out his surge proposal in the winter of 2007, he opposed the idea, according to the Wall Street Journal, because "it meant depleting readiness at home or extending the tours of troops [currently] in the war zone."
On Thursday, the congressman took a softer but similar stance. Murtha harped on the lack of political and diplomatic progress in Iraq. "The impression I got was that the central government was pretty close to dysfunctional," he said. "They hope the 2008 budget will be passed by 2007 but there are still 17 ministerial seats unfilled."
And he spoke worrisomely about the status of America's armed forces: "I keep stressing we can no longer afford to spend 14 billion a month on the war and let our readiness slip in other parts of the country."
Murtha also offered several more defined criticisms of the Bush administration's war policy. He discussed the violence caused by private contractors. "They are out of control," said the congressman. "There are more of them than there are troops." And he criticized America's military equipment shortage, noting that troops were leasing heavy-lift helicopters from Russia because the domestic crop had either worn down or weren't readily available.
What Murtha's press conference - and the reaction to it - did illustrate was how much of a delicate issue Iraq has become for the Democratic Party. With the levels of violence dropping, opponents of the war have been under pressure to alter their criticisms of President Bush's strategy. The outcome, some observers predict, is playing into the president 's hands.
"While you had very well intentioned and focused people like Congressman Murtha committed to getting the troops out, the Democratic Party as a whole could have won a number of these battles and didn't," Steve Clemons, a fellow at the New America Foundation, told the Huffington Post. "The [Democrats] seem to have been drawn into a fog by President Bush to neglect the larger strategic question and to allow the seduction of the American public into thinking things are improving."
And indeed, during his conference yesterday, Murtha raised the prospect that Democratic leadership could compromise on Iraq war funding (which is currently at an impasse) by extending the time-line for withdrawing troops. Such a move seemed out of the question when he and House appropriations chairman David Obey (D-WI) address the issue only a week ago.
"Congress wants to come up with a agreement," Murtha said on Thursday.
Yet even in opening up the possibility for legislative compromise, the congressman remained convinced that the soldiers in Iraq would best be served returning home. Asked about Sen. John McCain's claim that the troops simply wanted more time to complete the mission, Murtha offered:
"I think that's true. But on the other hand they want to come home. They came up to me and said how much they appreciate what the Congress has done to make sure they had what they need... Sure they want to finish the job, they feel morally responsible I think having said that they are burned out for having been there so often."