While the Senate was gearing up for its all-night Iraq debate-a-thon Tuesday afternoon, I was sitting around the bar at the American Legion hall in southeast, D.C. talking politics with some of the guys from Vets for Freedom, a group of veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq who oddly enough think we should try to win both conflicts. Sentiment seems to be running the other way on Capitol Hill these days, so the Vets came in from all over the country Tuesday to meet with senators and express the importance of giving Gen. David Petraeus and his new counterinsurgency strategy time to work.
At around 5 P.M. the bar went quiet, and the bartender switched the TV from the usual ESPN to Hardball with Chris Matthews, where the excitable host was just launching into a debate segment with Vets for Freedom executive director Pete Hegseth and MSNBC commentator Ron Reagan.
Matthews started the interview on the offensive. Several Vets muttered “C’mon Pete” as Matthews repeatedly interrupted Hegseth to ask him how much longer the American people should stick it out in Iraq. Hegseth struggled a bit before finding his footing, but then really started landing some blows:
MATTHEWS: When do we have to make a decision to cut or run or stay and fight?
HEGSETH: I think we’ve made the decision to stay and fight. We need to make it right now. Our enemies are there. We have the right strategy with General Petraeus in Baghdad. We need to give him time to implement it. As a soldier—
MATTHEWS: How much time? How much time do we give him?
HEGSETH: Excuse me, Chris. As a soldier who has been there and seen what this strategy can do, this has the opportunity to bring about real change, finally.
Matthews continued to hector Hegseth for a timeline, and Hegseth finally shot back, “You can’t create D.C. timelines for what’s going on Baghdad.” Several Vets at the American Legion post nodded and murmured in assent. From that point on, Hegseth maintained control of the debate, getting in a particularly good shot when Reagan asked how it was possible to defend Iraq from foreign fighters when “we can’t close our own borders.”
“Amen to that,” was Hegseth’s response.
Pete Hegseth grew up in Minnesota and attended Princeton University on an ROTC scholarship. Shortly after graduating he did a tour securing detainees at Guantanamo. When the prison facility came under fire in 2005 for, among other things, reports of “Koran abuse,” Hegseth publicly defended it. He told Minneapolis Star Tribune columnist Kathy Kersten, “We bend over backwards to conform ourselves to the detainees’ way of life,” adding, “I think their food is better than what my guys got.”
From September 2005 to July 2006, Hegseth served in the 101st Airborne Division in Iraq. He came back convinced of the importance of staying and winning the conflict, but also aware that the administration wasn’t pursuing the right strategy to secure the country. Hegseth tells National Review Online that he started trying to convince people at the Pentagon that what they were doing in Iraq wasn’t working. “My first focus was institutional,” he says. “But I was just a first lieutenant, so there wasn’t that much I could do.”
In October of 2006 he published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal titled, “More Troops, Please.” The oped added a soldier’s perspective to the increasing calls for something like the strategy Bush implemented in January when he ordered a “surge” of 21,500 troops into Iraq and put Gen. Petraeus, a counterinsurgency expert, in charge of the region.
Now, he says, the focus has to be on making sure Congress doesn’t cut Petraeus off at the knees before this plan has a chance to work. He calls recent proposals to redeploy troops out of the country and leave behind only a small contingent for counterterrorism “an abandonment of the Petraeus doctrine and a return to the Rumsfeld doctrine.”
“That’s what we did for three years,” he says. “We sat on big bases. We sent out strike units to go hit what we thought were pockets of al Qaeda and just hoped things would get better. So now we’re supposed to push out further into the desert and do counterterrorism? How are we going to know who we’re striking?”
He adds incredulously, “We’re going to sit out in big bases in the desert, eat burger king, eat ice cream, and find al Qaeda.”
Hegseth says the number-one talking point of the antiwar crowd — that al Qaeda wasn’t in Iraq until the United States invaded — is irrelevant. “At this point, al Qaeda has declared that Iraq is the central front in the War on Terror,” he says, “and if we leave, they’re going to spin that p.r. ‘til the cows come home. And they’re going to declare their victory, and we’re going to sit on our big bases and occasionally drop 500-pound bombs on a safe house, and we’re not going to hit the right people. And al Qaeda will have its safe haven in Iraq.”
He says that members understand this, but that the Democrats’ base has made opposing the war an issue of political survival for them. What he doesn’t understand is why Republicans who have supported the war up until now would suddenly change their position because of the polls, even as the new strategy is showing early signs of success.
I ask Hegseth (who currently lives in New York) whether he would challenge Minnesota Sen. Norm Coleman for the Republican nomination if Coleman starts supporting a deadline for withdrawal. “Me personally? No. But would he be susceptible to a primary challenge? Maybe.”
Hegseth says that’s part of what the Vets wanted to accomplish Tuesday. “Which way you vote… it means something to us,” he says. “I think the constituency [senators like Coleman] need to worry about is Republicans who are going to say, ‘Why are you going soft?’”
Back at the bar, the Vets are heartened by the day’s events. Nine senators showed up at their press conference, including Republican leader Mitch McConnell, Senators Joe Lieberman and John McCain. But given the media attention surrounding the Democrats’ all-night publicity stunt, they know they weren’t the only veterans group on the Hill. Claiming between 5,000 and 6,000 members, they say they represent more veterans than anti-war groups like Iraq Veterans Against the War, which came to D.C. to support the Democrats Tuesday. But they don’t seem to get anywhere near the same amount of press because, they say, the media prefer to portray soldiers as the victims of Bush’s policies rather than as warriors who believe in their mission.
Fortunately for Vets for Freedom, Pete Hegseth offers something that the media like even more: He’s good on TV. At the conclusion of the debate segment on Hardball, Matthews told Hegseth, “I wish this government of ours had as much brainpower behind this war as your passion for this war.” As usual, Matthews misread the situation. It’s not “passion for war” that motivates Vets for Freedom. It’s a determination to prevent a broken political system at home from undermining their accomplishments overseas.