Several days after returning from Iraq, U.S. Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) said that while American forces are doing all they can to stabilize the country, the Iraqi government is not doing its part to bring about reconciliation among Sunni, Shi'ite and Kurdish factions, as well stem the daily torrent of violence that plagues the country.
"The government there, to say it's unstable I think is an understatement. I didn't have any sense of progress in terms of where [Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's government is," said Casey during a Center City press conference held last week.
Casey traveled to the Middle East with U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.). On August 8 and 9, the two stopped in Iraq and Jordan, meeting with military personnel -- including General David Petraeus, commander of multi-national forces in Iraq -- as well as American diplomats serving in the countries and Iraqi politicians, including National Security Advisor Mowaffak al-Rubaie.
Durbin also stopped in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
"One of the messages that I wanted to deliver is that the American people are running out of patience, and justifiably so. I mean, this war has gone on longer than World War II," said Casey, the freshman lawmaker from Scranton. "Nothing I saw or heard on the trip, whether it was in a meeting or witnessing things firsthand in Iraq, changes my basic opinion about where we are and where we must go."
Essentially, Casey, like most Democratic and some GOP legislators, supports a scaling back of American forces. He opposed the president's troop buildup plan and has backed a Senate resolution that sets April 2008 as a time to redeploy large numbers of troops, a measure that so far has fallen short of the 60 required votes.
(In an October interview, shortly before Election Day, Casey said that he didn't support a timeline or a withdrawal date. "Some people in the party that I am a proud member of don't agree with that," he noted.)
Like a number of the Democratic presidential candidates, Casey said that even after a major withdrawal, an unspecified number of troops would remain, but their emphasis would shift away from combat toward training and support roles, as well as counterterrorism.
Despite the fact that the journey had not dramatically changed his views, Casey defended the importance for elected officials to have the opportunity to travel to Iraq, adding that by spending two days wearing body armor, he was offered a "fleeting glimpse" of the dangers faced by troops and civilians.
Casey pledged that the Senate would resume debating the Iraq policy after Petraeus delivers his progress report to Congress, which he's expected to do on September 15.
While in Jordan, Casey met with U.S. Ambassador David Hale as well as Imran Riza, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The senators were briefed on the increasing strain that hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees are placing on Jordanian resources.
Casey said that the influx of refugees has chipped away at King Abdullah II's ability to act as a moderating force in the region.
He also argued that the quagmire in Iraq has ultimately weakened U.S. influence in the region.
"It makes it difficult for our government to have the kind of time and the kind of energy and focus that you need for a Middle East peace process," said Casey.
Regarding American efforts to broker a peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians, Casey said that he thinks "we've lost a lot of time and a lot of momentum in the last couple of years because of the war in Iraq.
"I worry about that, especially as you have Prime Minister [Ehud] Olmert and Abu Mazen [Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas] as weakened leaders -- as opposed to the position they were in two years ago." In 2005, Ariel Sharon was still Israel's prime minister.
Casey, who supported legislation that would mandate the implementation of the Iraq Study Group's recommendations -- which urged the administration to engage in diplomacy with Iran and Syria -- said that "there is a debate about whether you should enlarge the discussion with Iran."
"Certainly, if Ambassador [Ryan] Crocker can make progress with the Iranians in terms of what's happening in Iraq, it may help," he continued.
"But what mostly has to happen, the president and his administration have to create conditions and keep pressure on the Iraqi government because we cannot allow this government just to drift."