Two congressmen regret their vote to authorize war

The Star-Ledger [Newark, NJ] December 11, 2005


WASHINGTON -- Two Democratic congressmen from New Jersey who voted for the Iraq war three years ago now say they made a mistake.

Reps. Steven Rothman (D-9th Dist.) and William Pascrell (D-8th Dist.) said they based their 2002 vote on faulty intelligence supplied by the Bush administration that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and that Saddam Hussein posed a direct threat to the United States.

If they could do it all over again, the two lawmakers said during interviews last week, they would vote "no."

"I made a mistake. I must be held accountable," Pascrell said. "But I also point to the president and blame him. He must be held accountable. I am not in denial. He is."

Added Rothman: "If I knew then what I know now, I would not have voted to authorize the president to go to war. . . . Practically all of the information had persuaded me a pre-emptive strike against Saddam Hussein was necessary. It turns out to have been factually wrong."

Rep. Robert Andrews (D-1st Dist.), the only other New Jersey Democratic congressman to vote for the invasion, recently has criticized the administration's handling of the war, but still says "Saddam Hussein was a threat to this country who needed to be removed."

The comments come as public opinion has grown increasingly negative about the president's handling of the war, in which more than 2,100 American troops have been killed and about 16,000 wounded, and calls for an immediate withdrawal have intensified.


President Bush has mounted a campaign of speeches defending the 2003 invasion, declaring that progress is being made and assuring the American people he has a strategy to defeat the Iraqi insurgency and eventually bring the troops home.

The president has refused to set a timetable or cede ground to some Democrats who see the war as counterproductive and want a troop withdrawal to start immediately. Bush has said he will rely on the judgment of senior military commanders and not be guided by "artificial timetables set by politicians in Washington."

Last week, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said he expects some 20,000 U.S. troops to return home from Iraq after this week's elections there, and suggested some of the remaining 137,000 forces could pull out next year "if conditions permit."

The state's seven Democratic House members, like their counterparts nationally, are divided over how the U.S. should now proceed. Some want a troop withdrawal to start immediately while others favor a more cautious approach. All six New Jersey Republican congressmen support the war. They argue a precipitous exit would aid America's enemies, hurt U.S. national security interests and lead to greater chaos in Iraq.

"It is a much more difficult war than we thought it would be," Rep. Jim Saxton (R-3rd Dist.) said. "But we have to stay the course. I subscribe to the notion that showing weakness by pulling out of Iraq would embolden those who oppose us."

Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-11th Dist.) said he has no regrets about voting to go to war, firmly believes Saddam was a threat to U.S. security and feels progress is being made in Iraq.

"The absolutely wrong message would be sent if we were to set specific dates for troop pullout or promote the notion of an immediate withdrawal," Frelinghuysen said. He said troop decisions must depend on circumstances in Iraq and the advice of the military, not domestic political considerations.

That view is shared by Reps. Frank LoBiondo (R-2nd Dist.), Christopher Smith (R-4th Dist.), Scott Garrett (R-5th Dist.) and Michael Ferguson (R-7th Dist.). All voted for the war except Garrett, who was not yet in Congress.

Four state Democrats - Reps. Rush Holt (D-12th Dist.), Donald Payne (D-10th Dist.), Frank Pallone (D-6th Dist.) and Pascrell - said they back the position of Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), the hawkish Marine veteran who has called for Bush to start withdrawing troops immediately.

"If the United States gets out of the way of being a flash point, the Iraqis will come up with a solution of their own to deal with the insurgents," Payne said. "We should still give them economic aid and military support, but a drawdown should begin early next year. We need to keep reassessing the situation, but the goal should be removal of our troops within a year."

A more gradual approach to removing the troops is supported by Reps. Andrews, Rothman and Robert Menendez (D-13th Dist.), who officially was named by Gov.-elect Jon Corzine Friday to succeed him in the Senate.

Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) is in that same camp. He has called on Bush to come forward with a "concrete plan" to stabilize Iraq so troops can start to be removed, but has not urged an immediate withdrawal.

Andrews said he supports a phased withdrawal of U.S. troops "as soon as practicable," meaning when the Iraqis are capable of taking on greater responsibility. He said a small troop withdrawal could probably begin relatively soon, but added, "I don't support a hard and fast time deadline."

Menendez criticized Bush for needlessly starting and then mishandling the war, but said he is not ready to endorse an immediate pullback of U.S. troops. He said there need to be established "benchmarks" showing Iraqi capability to take over the job that can be tied to a phased-out military presence.

--Robert Cohen covers politics and government. He can be reached at rcohen@starledger.com or (202) 383-7800.


Informant: William K. Dobbs

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