Freshmen Proving Fickle On Iraq

This column was written by Duncan Currie
The Democratic freshmen in the House are said to be a moderate bunch — by some lights even conservative. It is probably safer to call them economic populists, with a few border hawks, pro-lifers, and gun owners sprinkled here and there. Beyond basic partisanship and amorphous cries for "ethics" reform, there were two issues that united these Democrats during the 2006 campaign. The first was free trade. They're against it. Indeed, it's striking how far left the party has shifted on globalization since Bill Clinton championed NAFTA in the early 1990s. The second was the Iraq war. They're against that, too. Almost to a man the Democratic House freshmen tore into President Bush's handling of the war.

Some Republicans have comforted themselves with the thought that Democrats who won "red" districts would want to keep their distance from liberal leaders such as Nancy Pelosi and soft-pedal their criticism of Bush, should they desire a second term. While this may be true on taxes, immigration, and some cultural issues, the war in Iraq is another matter. In fact, among those House Democrats who took over Republican seats, there is almost uniform opposition to the counterinsurgency plan and troop reinforcements that Bush announced last week.

"Every freshman I've spoken with is just disgusted with this," says a Democratic House aide, who claims one of his party's freshmen mocked the Bush speech as "blabbering buffoonery." Even Joe Donnelly of Indiana, who has publicly hedged on the troop surge, is reportedly more critical in private. According to a Democratic source, Donnelly left a meeting at the White House shortly before Bush's speech believing that even some administration officials had lost confidence in our Iraq policy.

Democratic complaints take several forms. Iraq is in the throes of a civil war, they say. The only solution is political, not military. Adding over 20,000 U.S. troops will make Iraqis more dependent on American forces, not less. Past troop surges have not curtailed violence in Baghdad. Either way, top U.S. generals oppose the surge. Shouldn't Bush listen to his senior military advisers? Doesn't he realize his latest plan will only strain our armed forces further, and make them less capable of responding to contingencies elsewhere in the Middle East and East Asia? And whatever happened to the Iraq Study Group recommendations? Has Bush completely ignored them?

These are the typical gripes. The irony is that Democrats were once the folks advocating a bigger U.S. deployment to Iraq, citing the wisdom of such generals as former Army chief of staff Eric Shinseki. Now they've changed their tune.

The freshmen Democrats in the House are particularly curious. They ran on explicit pledges to investigate or question the administration's conduct in Iraq. As such, they might have been expected to support a new policy — but not this new policy. Most of them knocked off GOP incumbents or won previously Republican seats, but show little fear of alienating their constituents by attacking Bush on the war. This offers further evidence that even traditional GOP voters are souring on Iraq and itching for a U.S. withdrawal.

Even the two most conservative Democratic freshmen, Brad Ellsworth of Indiana and Heath Shuler of North Carolina, are following the party line. "He failed to convince me that sending more troops fits into a new, successful strategy," Ellsworth said of the Bush speech. "We've heard time and time again that as the Iraqis stand up, the U.S. will stand down. But we have yet to see the Iraqis take responsibility for their future. Now is the time for them to fulfill their commitment as we fulfill ours."

Shuler, the former NFL quarterback, was even more disparaging. "The president has asked us to send more of our brave young men and women into harm's away, against the advice of his generals and the Iraq Study Group," he said. "We heard a call for escalation and continuation — an escalation of the number of our troops fighting in Iraq and a continuation of the same failed policies and reckless optimism."

It's worth noting that, in the 2004 election, George W. Bush carried Ellsworth's district by 24 points (62-38) and won Shuler's district by 14 points (57-43). He carried Democrat Steve Kagen's Wisconsin district by 11 points (55-44). Kagen, though, offered an acerbic denunciation of the surge strategy: "This administration's policies make no sense. Clearly it was bad judgment to have invaded Iraq, and it will be even worse judgment if we stay. Simply put, we do not belong in Iraq, and we're still heading in the wrong direction."

Another significant group of Democratic critics includes those House freshmen who served in Iraq or other wise boast a military background. Tim Walz of Minnesota, a retired Army national guardsman who was stationed in Italy during part of the Iraq war, called the Bush speech "showmanship at its worst." Patrick Murphy of Pennsylvania, a former Army captain and Iraq veteran, sided with "military experts like General Colin Powell and General Abizaid who say we need a political solution, not a military escalation." Joe Sestak of Pennsylvania, a former three-star Navy admiral, insisted that "the way forward is not to add more troops, but to set a deliberate timetable for redeployment from Iraq — at least by the end of this year — to serve as a catalyst for the Iraqis to accept responsibility for their country."

A third Pennsylvania freshman, Navy reservist Chris Carney, approaches Iraq from a unique vantage point: He served as a senior counterterrorism official at the Pentagon from 2002 to 2004, where he worked for Rumsfeld undersecretary Douglas Feith (a bête noire of the antiwar left) and collected intelligence on the relationship between al Qaeda and Baathist Iraq. "This is a Yogi Berra strategy: déjà vu all over again," Carney said last week of the new Bush plan. "We should be changing our focus in Iraq. Instead of sending more American troops overseas, we should be training Iraqis to handle the jobs themselves. For every Iraqi battalion we train, we need to bring an American battalion home. This should be our focus."

I spoke with Carney last Friday. "The leadership of the party," he says, "is looking to me to give some guidance on this issue." If the White House thought someone with Carney's background and avowed commitment to forging a nonpartisan Iraq strategy would give guidance sympathetic to the president's position, they were wrong. That's just one more sign of how difficult it will be for the White House to find even grudging supporters of the troop surge among Democrats on Capitol Hill.

By Duncan Currie