WASHINGTON -- Sen. John McCain, leading a blue-ribbon congressional delegation to Baghdad before Christmas, collected evidence that a "surge" of more U.S. troops is needed in Iraq. But not all his colleagues who accompanied him were convinced. What's more, he will find himself among a dwindling minority inside the Senate Republican caucus when Congress reconvenes this week.
President Bush and McCain, the front-runner for the next presidential nomination, in pressing for a surge of 30,000 more troops, will have trouble finding support from more than 12 out of 49 Republican senators. "It's Alice in Wonderland," Sen. Chuck Hagel, second-ranking Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, told me in describing the proposed surge. "I'm absolutely opposed to sending any more troops to Iraq. It is folly."
What to do about Iraq poses not only a national policy crisis but profound political problems for the Republican Party. Disenchantment with George W. Bush within the GOP runs deep. Republican leaders around the country, anticipating that the 2006 election disaster would prompt an orderly disengagement from Iraq, are shocked that the president now appears ready to add more troops.
The recent McCain congressional delegation was composed of sophisticated lawmakers who have made many previous visits to Iraq. They do not minimize the severity of sectarian civil war. They left their meeting with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki doubting any "sense of urgency" after advising him that he must disarm the militias. They recognize that the national police, corrupt and riddled with radicals, constitutes an unmitigated disaster.
McCain long has called for more troops in Iraq. He was supported within the delegation by his close ally, Sen. Lindsey Graham, and by Sen. Joseph Lieberman, the only Democrat on the delegation (though he now calls himself an "Independent Democrat" after losing the Democratic nomination in Connecticut and being elected with Republican votes). But Sen. John Thune calls his support for the surge "conditional." Sen. Susan Collins returned from Baghdad opposing more troops. Rep. Mark Kirk of Illinois, the only House member on the trip, is described as skeptical.
How big and how long should a surge be? The 7,000 or 8,000 additional troops that were first mentioned now have grown to at least 30,000. Congressional advocates talk privately about a new infusion of manpower ending about halfway through this year. But retired Gen. Jack Keane, who has become a leading advocate of additional troops, wrote in The Washington Post last week: "Increasing troop levels in Baghdad for three to six months would virtually ensure defeat."