Politics & Policy

He’s No Dick Cheney

Congressman Baird calls Iraq as he sees it.

Has Democratic Congressman Brian Baird (D, Wash.) become, in the words of one influential left-wing blogger, “Dick Cheney’s trained monkey”? I don’t know; does this sound like a White House talking point to you?

We had many, many options other than a ground invasion, and I think it was a mistake in so many ways. It’s cost us so many lives. The credibility of this country internationally has catastrophically plummeted. If you look what the problems are on the ground in Iraq right now, it’s Iranian influence in Iraq, and it’s al Qaeda, and it’s these armies like Jaish al-Mahdi. None of those were problems prior to our invasion. This invasion destabilized the region, weakened our military readiness, made us more, not less, vulnerable to terror, and it has cost thousands of American lives and hundreds of billions of dollars. I still think it’s a huge mistake.

That was Baird’s response when I asked him whether he would still consider the 2003 invasion of Iraq “one of the worst foreign-policy mistakes in the history of our nation” even if the United States eventually stabilized Iraq and left behind a secure country with a decent government. But despite Baird’s harsh criticism of George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq and his administration’s handling of the occupation, left-wing activists have attacked him for daring to suggest that we bear some responsibility for Iraq’s post-occupation fate; that withdrawing now would have disastrous consequences; and, most controversially, that his recent visit to the region convinced him that the situation “has at long last begun to change substantially for the better.”

“I still believe that this invasion was one of the biggest mistakes in the history of the United States of America and it had tragic consequences for our soldiers, their families, the Iraqi people and the stability of the region and, ultimately, for our security,” Baird says. “But, having made that mistake, the question is: What do we do on the ground?’ Having been there, in the region five times and in Iraq itself two times in just the last four months, I think it’s pretty clear to me that a premature withdrawal would lead to greater chaos in the country and that that chaos would expand within the region.

“I believe we have a moral responsibility to the Iraqi people to try to establish stability and security and a strategic interest to try to make this work as well as we can, given the conditions that we’ve helped create already,” he says.

Baird’s comments have taken many political observers by surprise, given his record on the war. He voted against the invasion in 2002. He opposed sending additional troops in January. And just last month, Baird voted with the Democratic leadership in favor of legislation ordering all U.S. combat troops out of Iraq by April of next year.

But Baird says his position on the war hasn’t changed as suddenly as that July vote makes it seem. “At the time, I wished we hadn’t brought it up,” he says. “My preference, and I expressed this to colleagues in the party, was to wait for the [General David] Petraeus and [Ambassador Ryan] Crocker report.” However, Baird said he voted for the bill out of respect for its author, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton (D, Mo.), and because of concerns about troop exhaustion.

Then he visited the region for a fifth time, an experience that convinced him of the need to give General Petraeus’s new strategy more time to work. “There is a positive synergy happening on the security front,” Baird says. “The more we’re able to crack down on al Qaeda and insurgent groups, the more the public is willing to work with us.”

Baird says his talks with “our grunt soldiers, the infantry guys,” colonels, generals, Petraeus, Crocker, and Iraqi politicians on all sides convinced him that the additional forces have improved the security situation. Above all, he says, “the Iraqi people themselves are standing up to al Qaeda and some of the other groups.”

“No question it is an uncertain environment,” he says. “No question it is fraught with risks, and the thing could well fall apart, even if we stay for six more months. But I believe it is highly probable that it will fall apart if we withdraw sooner, and having invested so many good lives and so much money and so much blood, a six-month extension of this current troop strength is worth the risk, even though I know it’s uncertain and I know we will lose more good lives and more money.”

Baird now argues that the Democrats’ constant attempts to substantially reduce the number of troops in Iraq are creating a less stable political situation in the country. “People seem to think, and I believed at one point, that threats of withdrawal would motivate the Iraqis solve their problems,” he says. “I’ve come to believe that it may well be the reverse.

“It hasn’t gotten much attention, but basically that same conclusion is in the National Intelligence Estimate that was just published, where they say the threat and talk of withdrawal is causing people to retrench into their partisan trenches rather than work together,” he says. “So I think we’re having a counterproductive effect, and I’m sorry to say that, but I think we need to be cognizant that that may well be happening.”

Baird’s public reversal has prompted an intense backlash online, where liberal bloggers have suggested he has been fooled by the “dog and pony show” that the military allegedly puts on for visiting members of Congress. One mocked him, saying he reached his conclusions “after spending a grand total of two days in Iraq.”

Baird replies, “A lot of this is coming from bloggers who have never spent a second on the ground over there.

“Look, I’m fully aware that one gets a limited snapshot,” he says. “But in the past four months I’ve spent 13 days on the ground in the region — not just in Iraq, but in Egypt, in Jordan, in Israel and the Palestinian territories. And one thing we don’t hear much about, but I heard unanimously over there, is that people in the neighboring countries say, you cannot pull out now. You created this mess. You think you can walk away from it, but we live in the neighborhood. If you pull out now, chaos will ensue in Iraq, and it will spread and it will have dire consequences for the entire region.”

So far Baird’s toughest critics have been the bloggers, but he’ll face flesh-and-blood protests from the “Impeach Now” crowd when he heads back to his district in southwestern Washington State for a series of town-hall meetings next week. I asked him how his constituents have reacted so far. “We’ve had a number of people call to say thank you,” he says, “but it won’t surprise you to hear that a number of people have called to express their concerns. One of the problems is that, oftentimes the media can’t help themselves: You become either pro-surge or anti-surge, pro-Bush or anti-Bush. One report just said I’m a defector. I don’t think I’m a defector. I think I’m describing the truth as best I understand it. My hope is people give me a chance at the town halls I’ve got coming up to at least explain the information and evidence that I’ve based my conclusions on.”

I also asked Baird if it would be politically possible for the leaders of his party in Congress to embrace publicly his conclusions, if signs of progress in Iraq had the same effect on them; he deferred, but said, “I would hope that we could all take a deep breath. I know it’s asking a lot, but I tell you what. We’re asking the Iraqi politicians to set aside a lot more important and legitimate grievances than we’ve got.

“More importantly, what about our troops on the ground and what about their families?” he asks. “Granted, I met with soldiers who said, Congressman, this is a mess, get us out of here now. And that is a legitimate perspective from people on the ground, and we have to respect it. But I also met with soldiers who said, Congressman, I would love to go home tomorrow. I miss my family. I know my life is at risk. But I’ve seen friends die over here. And if we have a chance of making this work, I’m willing to stick it out and see the mission through.

“I wish some of the politicians in America, on both sides, would try to show some of the forbearance that we ask of our Iraqi counterparts, and I wish we could show some of the courage, on both sides, of our soldiers who say, we have a job to do, let’s try to succeed.”

— Stephen Spruiell is an NRO staff reporter.


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