Pro-surge Iraq Vets Make Unpopular Plea

For more than a half-hour Tuesday, a small group of Iraq war veterans worked on their adversary, pressing President Bush's surge strategy to the staff of Michigan Democratic Sen. Carl Levin. 

"Unproductive," muttered one as he arrived for lunch in the American Legion building on D Street shortly afterward. 

Reports from other meetings between lawmakers and Vets for Freedom, a nonpartisan organization established by Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, weren't much brighter. Participants who met with Virginia Sen. John Warner, one of the president's most influential Republican critics, said his senior aides seemed to talk past them and repeated talking points. Those in a meeting with the staff of Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said they had a frank discussion that pleased them, even though it brought no victory. 

Vets for Freedom's mission Tuesday was to reassure the GOP lawmakers supporting President Bush's war strategy as they endure a pummeling at home in TV ads and automated telephone calls from anti-war groups. And maybe, the veterans hoped, they could change the minds of other lawmakers. 

Their Capitol Hill offensive wound up illustrating the unevenness of the debate over the war and whether to end it. Veterans for Freedom has scant money to spend and no contracts with professional public relations firms. 

The opposition can easily entice a sitting lawmaker to attend rallies and events; 23 senators and 57 representatives attended an anti-war candlelight vigil Tuesday night organized by Americans Against Escalation in Iraq, an umbrella organization that represents roughly 9 million anti-war activists. 

The only senators who would meet with the pro-surge veterans were those who already shared their view. The real targets -- war opponents or wobbly supporters -- sent a first wave of senior aides to shield themselves from the pitch. 

AAEI was making the rounds, as well, Tuesday, denouncing Republicans for obstructing votes on proposals aimed at ending the war and bringing the troops home. The group also unleashed a new round of ads in Kentucky and Minnesota to pressure Republican Sens. Mitch McConnell and Norm Coleman, respectively, to end a filibuster on those measures. 

Vets for Freedom sent out a call to its members last Friday to come to Washington -- on the group's dime -- to lobby Capitol Hill. About 40 of them gathered Tuesday morning at the American Legion building and, over coffee and bagels, were given a quick briefing on how to talk to senators and their senior aides. "Be courteous, be polite, but be persistent." 

The first group walked up to Capitol Hill just before 10 a.m. for a meeting with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) to thank him for his support. He greeted them personally and assured them he stood behind them.
Next, about two dozen gathered around a conference table with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). "Welcome to the part of the Senate that believes we are going to win," he said. 

When talk turned to Graham's clash with war critic Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.), the veterans broke into applause and recited from memory some of his pro-war comebacks.

"If (I) had to pick a client to advocate for," he told the group, "you'd be at the top of the list." 

He had a message for them from another member: "Sen. (Joseph I.) Lieberman says hello," he said, referring to the independent from Connecticut who left the Democratic Party after he was attacked for supporting the war.

The veterans broke up into smaller groups to cover more ground. Some met with Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah) and Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), whose support for the war is waning.

Then came the meeting with Levin's staff. Give Army Gen. David Petraeus and the troops in Iraq more time to do their job, they pleaded; to pull out now would be counterproductive and tantamount to admitting defeat.

But the message didn't seem to move the aide, the veterans concluded.

After lunch, they headed back to the Hill to meet with aides to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and to hold a news conference, where they managed to attract a standing-room-only crowd inside the Mansfield Room off the Senate floor. McConnell, Lieberman and McCain stood with them. "The war in Iraq will only be lost if we lose our political will at home," Lieberman said.

Vets for Freedom Executive Director Pete Hegseth, also an Iraq war veteran, said he was pleased with the outcome of the event.

"Our side has not done anything like this in the four years of the Iraq war," he said. "Most guys believe in the mission and are re-enlisting, which means they are staying in, which means they are in Iraq or, if they are back here, they are on active duty and hesitant to talk. Or they have grown up in a military background and believe that soldiers, as professionals, should not get involved in this realm. We have to do our own internal information campaign to let people know that getting involved on Capitol Hill is not forsaking their identity as a solider."

Despite some chilly receptions, members of the group said they felt the meetings had an impact. "I don't know that we changed any minds or anything, but at least I got the sense that they were listening to what we had to say and were at least trying to respond to it," said Ian DePlanque, a veteran who served in Afghanistan.

When Petraeus does make recommendations in September, Vets for Freedom is going to return to Capitol Hill, this time with a larger and more organized operation.
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