Monday, December 05, 2005

In The Middle: John Murtha

From: Phillip Winn @ Center-Right
To: Eric Berlin @ Center-Left
Subject: Supreme Court Nominee Samuel Alito, Jr

Polls showed President Bush's approval rating to be plummeting, and it seems that his political foes were eager to push their advantage. Even some Democrats who had voted in favor of invading Iraq publicly apologized for their votes and began to call for withdrawal plans. Pennsylvania Democrat John Murtha went even farther, calling for the United States military to "immediately redeploy" troops, withdrawing from Iraq. Representative Murtha is certainly passionate, but I wonder how much credibility he can claim to have, given his record on the war in Iraq.

Prior to the Iraq authorization vote in 2002, Murtha questioned the resolution on primarily strategic reasons (it might alienate allies to go ahead without United Nations approval), but ended up voting for it anyway.

In 2004, in the wake of the Abu Ghraib scandals, he called for more troops to be sent to Iraq, arguing that, "We cannot prevail in this war as it is going today," and "We either have to mobilize or we have to get out."

So far this seems reasonable. I, too, was worried a bit about the lack of UN support, though I decided eventually, as did many others, that UN support would never come, no matter what Hussein did. The Abu Ghraib revelations were disheartening, and I would certainly have supported more troops had the military leadership called for them. Still, that was a tactical decision, one that should be made free from political influence. Whether political issues are unduly influencing those decisions, I don't know, but certainly Rep. Murtha's statements don't represent politics-free decision-making, either.

Where things start to seem a little odd is later in 2004, with a bill introduced by Democrat Charles Rangel. Introduced in 2003, the bill would have reinstated a military draft, a political ploy designed to publicize the claim (which began in 2002) that a mandatory draft was unavoidable, and that President Bush was trying to avoid the issue until after the 2004 election. The bill was forced to a vote in 2004 in order to clear it off the docket, and even the bill's sponsor voted against it. Only two people voted in favor of reinstating the draft, and one was John Murtha. Of course, once the 2004 election cycle was over, nobody mentioned a draft again.

Just before Thanksgiving, Rep. Murtha seems to have decided that troop increases were no longer enough, and began to call for an immediate withdrawal from Iraq. On November 17 on NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, in an interview with Margaret Warner, Murtha said, "I say that the fight against Americans began with Abu Ghraib. It began with the invasion of Iraq. That's when terrorism started." That comes as a bit of a surprise to anyone who remembers September 11, 2001, I'm sure! Still, Rep. Murtha is no critic of the military, and his intentions are clearly found at least in part on a concern for troops who are fighting what seems to him to be an unwinnable war.

But still we have an odd contrast between Rep. Murtha's statement and his votes, because after calling for an immediate withdrawal on the 17th, he voted against a bill suggesting just that the next day! The bill was defeated by a vote of 403 to 3 with six abstentions.

Let us make no mistake: What John Murtha actually said on Thursday, November 17, was this (emphasis added): "I believe before the Iraqi elections, scheduled for mid-December, the Iraqi people and the emerging government must be put on notice: The United States will immediately redeploy—immediately redeploy. No schedule which can be changed, nothing that's controlled by the Iraqis, this is an immediate redeployment of our American forces because they have become the target... My plan calls for immediate redeployment of U.S. troops consistent with the safety of U.S. forces to create a quick reaction force in the region, to create an over-the-horizon presence of Marines, and to diplomatically pursue security and stability in Iraq."

This may actually not be a bad idea, and I would support this plan if the military commanders were to call for it as the best way to proceed.

Republican Duncan Hunter took those words and turned them into a resolution, which said, "Expressing the sense of the House of Representatives that the deployment of United States forces in Iraq be terminated immediately. Resolved, That it is the sense of the House of Representatives that the deployment of United States forces in Iraq be terminated immediately." It is against that resolution that John Murtha voted.

I have to wonder, what's going on with John Murtha?

From: Eric Berlin @ Center-Left
To: Phillip Winn @ Center-Right

I think that Rep. John Murtha is a very interesting figure to emerge at the center of the ongoing debate about what to do about Iraq, Phillip. Murtha, a fairly conservative Democrat, has strong ties to the military and defense issues throughout his career as a military man and politician both.

I see Murtha's statement on redeployment of U.S. troops out of Iraq as a passionate stand by a man who deeply believes a change in policy is needed to make things better — both in Iraq and for American forces and long-term security for the United States. Indeed, his character, values, and beliefs now stand at stark odds with the President, who again today (Wednesday) rattled off standard and (verrrry…) long-standing slogans about staying the course and fighting until victory is at hand.

You seem to imply, Phillip, that Murtha's call for redeployment might be a political ploy designed to increase support for the growing anti-war sentiment in Congress (driven by relentlessly gloomy and across-the-board poll numbers). I can understand why some might feel this way, but I think a closer look at the actual proposal is warranted. The idea is that Iraq won't stand up for itself until it is basically forced to. Therefore, American forces would, under this plan, redeploy to neighboring or nearby areas so that they could easily go back in should it be necessary. This is actually a very interesting way to pull American soldiers away from the specter of Sunni-Shiite civil war yet put them in position to stamp out terror cells and training camps quickly and efficiently. I'm not military expert enough to comment upon the viability of such a plan, but I believe we've reached a time where many options should be closely examined under the umbrella of free and open debate.

The reason why Murtha voted against the forced vote by the GOP a few weeks ago (and talk about ploys, that was about as big of one as you can get!), as far as I understand it, is because that bill called for the immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops, and not the redeployment as sketched out above.

As far as military commanders asking to redeployed, the sad but certain truth is that this will never happen. It can't happen — at least in public — because soldiers are trained to attempt to complete the mission, whatever the odds. In any event, we've seen already what happens to high-ranking officials and soldiers who question Bush administration policy. It's up to our civilian leadership to change course based upon recommendations and facts on the ground. A significant problem here may lead back to the "Bush Bubble," or the tight circle in which President Bush surrounds himself, unpunctured by contrarian voices and, as has been famously stated, any form or news or media reporting.

So I think what we have is two clear positions emerging, with Bush on one side and Murtha as a new and leading figure on the other. Most others are in the middle, the confused and muddled variety and not the sharp as tacks, witty, and vivacious varietals found at In the Middle.

From: Phillip Winn @ Center-Right
To: Eric Berlin @ Center-Left

The Hunter resolution was definitely a stunt, intended to do exactly what it seems to have done: force Murtha to take a stand rather than rely solely on rhetoric. They're all stunts, and it's all politics. The interesting point is the stand Murtha took when it came to a vote.

Placing a lot of emphasis on the word "redeployment" overlooks the fact that Murtha spelled out the details of what he was talking about. Details that can be summed up succinctly as "withdraw from Iraq, but stay close by just in case." In other words, a plan entirely consistent with the Hunter resolution, which was also consistent with Murtha previous statments about needing to "get out."

As I mentioned, originally, I'm not against the general idea, I just want it to be driven by the military commanders on the ground, not politicians thousands of miles away. A recent Pew poll reveals that military personnel and the general American public are the two groups which have the most positive opinion of the progress in Iraq, and I think that's telling. While it is certainly the case that public disputes from military commanders are unwelcome for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the message that sends to those against whom we're fighting, privately the opinions of the officers on the ground ought to be given the highest level of consideration, and I believe that they are.

Tactics have changed many times since the original invasion of Iraq, and continue to change in response to changing conditions. I heard a report on NPR recently in which two congressmen, one from each party and both recently returned from Iraq, expressed how impressed they were by the progress that is being made there, as Iraqi troops are more involved over time with military operations, and as those against whom we're fighting control less and less ground. We are making progress, though the progress is slow and expectations are high due to both unrealistic ideas in the age of Media War and also false hopes trumpeted as realities in the early days of the war.

I don't actually think that Murtha and Bush are very far apart in their views. Both want to see the troops come home, and both want to see Iraq succeed. I believe that Bush feels that he has to send a message of unwavering committment, to demonstrate to those who would otherwise press against what they perceive as weakness on our part that we will not bow under the pressue of more or bigger explosions. I think Murtha is more concerned with how people here in the the United States perceive things, and also, because he isn't the President, has more freedom to suggest things than Bush does. Both of them also, of course, care quite a bit for the safety of the troops.

The primary difference between their positions as I see it, aside from their relative abilities to speak freely, is that Bush believes that the Iraqi troops are making substantial progress right now, while Murtha believes that they will only make substantial progress with the pressure of stark necessity.

Still, I can't help but think that some of what we're seeing is political grandstanding, an attempt by critics of President Bush to use the time of the year — when people are thinking about family and missing their loved ones — and Bush's falling poll numbers in ways that aren't even necessarily the most effective at actually accomplishing their goals.

From: Eric Berlin @ Center-Left
To: Phillip Winn @ Center-Right

While I agree that politicians act like "politicians" nearly all the time, I still have to wonder why you seem to imply that Murtha's actions are purely Machievellian in nature. In my view, he immediately has credibility as a lifelong military man and foreign policy hawk who stood up from the back benches of Congress to demand change to a policy he in some ways helped to craft. To me, that shows backbone and courage and the fortitude to demand progress and accountability and transparency from our government.

I can't tell you exactly why Murtha voted against the Hunter resolution. Members of Congress get into "trouble" all the time for these kinds of in-house machinations (see: John Kerry, '04), which was exactly why the House GOP rolled out what could only be described as a designed mousetrap. But personally I'll take him at his word in stating that his preference is that changes in military policy should be driven by the commanders on the ground. Last night on Hardball, Murtha echoed what many others are saying in expressing that military commanders are privately horrified at the war effort but refuse to say so in public. This presents a conundrum, which circles me back to what might be a general unwillingness by the Rumsfeld-Cheney-Bush inner circle to change policy in the face of bad information, intelligence, and voices of dissent. Former Secretary of State Colin Powell would likely be the first to tell you that breaking
into that inner circle is a nearly impossible task.

I agree that Bush's and Murtha's goals are very closely related, as are the views of the vast majority of both parties and the American people: leave Iraq safe and secure and preserve American security and the lives of as many of our citizens and soldiers as possible. I disagree that the politics are being driven by the "time of year" as much as the normal souring of the American public toward foreign military adventures that drag on and don't show visible signs of progress. This is exactly where Bush's "stalwartness" gets him into trouble, as it should. Expressing unbound optimism and bumper sticker slogans can demonstrably yield political victory but it can't turn the tide on a murky-to-ugly military picture.

Many of our In the Middle columns seem to circle back to a few Big Picture questions (and as we all know, I'm a Big Picture guy). One that most are asking and will continue to ask is: How is the war really going? As Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the US Armed Forces, recently said, perhaps the government and namely the president needs to do a better job of explaining how the war is going in unadorned and unspun terms. This leads back to my call for transparency.

If 2005 has shown us anything, it's that the American public is desperate for honest leadership. That may well be one of the largest factors in why John Murtha is now a household name.

From: Phillip Winn @ Center-Right
To: Eric Berlin @ Center-Left

I agree completely that we need more information about how the war is really going. I think Bush's speech this week might signal the beginning of just such a change in strategy. I hope so! I understand that they've been reluctant to spell things out for fear that our very media-savvy opponents in this struggle will learn important things from satellite television, but I think the time has come when the concerns of the voting public need to outweigh that fear in most cases, allowing for a certain amount of short-term secrecy for tactical reasons.

One other concern they've probably had involves the short-term mentality of many people, who really seem to expect any military operation to be wrapped in about as long as it took to film Saving Private Ryan. If we have a bad week, or bad month, in the ongoing war effort, will short-sighted people call for withdrawal too soon? Will such fears cause military commanders to avoid taking necessary risks, in order to manage the images and numbers we see here at home?

Still, I'd like to see maps, and charts, and lists. I suspect those would reveal a somewhat different picture of the situation in Iraq than the mental image many people have, but there's only one way to know for sure!

I don't think I'd say that Murtha moves are "purely" manipulative, but I think that there is a strong element of politican showmanship in the timing and nature of his statements. As a congressman, he has avenues which he could pursue which would be more likely to result in action, but chooses instead to spend his time on television talk shows and at press conferences. I have to believe that this is in large part an effort to create an image like the one you described, in which Murtha is seen as the anti-Bush, despite their views being far more similar in reality than those of many other members of Congress.

Murtha's somewhat inconsistent back-and-forth speechifying suggests to me that there is a little more going on there than a natural progression of ideas.

In any case, I think we agree that the time has come for more transparency about what's going on in Iraq, and the poll numbers to which I linked a little while ago suggests to me that CNN and Fox News are not necessarily the best sources, given a strong tendency to pessimism.

From: Eric Berlin @ Center-Left
To: Phillip Winn @ Center-Right

CNN and Fox News have something in common?

Okay, but seriously… I'll counter and say that Murtha's Stand (how's that for grandiose?), coupled with diving poll numbers and general unease about the war throughout Washington, are the very factors that brought out Bush's speech this week. So while you might see it as grandstanding and speechifying, I actually see it as actions that have brought about results (i.e. spelling out the beginnings of a strategy, to be kind) not seen in two-and-half-years of war!

I think Bush has proved that he's immensely capable of not listening to detractors, the media, or anyone else (perhaps not even his father or Bush 41's able foreign policy team) once he's made up his mind about something. When Bush says "stay the course," I for one believe that that means until the end of time, if not sooner. One of Bush 43's problems has always been his inability to change course (while staying on it, of course) in the face of changing data and changing times and public demands, from tax cuts to stem cell research
to Iraq.

Fred Kaplan's Slate piece covering Bush's speech does a really good job of summing up the somewhat little, hopefully not too late substance of the National Security Council's newly printed "National Strategy for Victory in Iraq." That said, it's better than nothing, and perhaps it's a start to a coherent Iraq strategy.

I can't fault patriots, whether it be John Murtha or John McCain, for demanding that from the president.

Focusing on the future, Kaplan did an excellent job in pointing out four crucial factors that Bush continues to ignore. They are:

  • The potential for the U.S. occupation to fuel the very insurgency its fighting

  • The huge X factor of the ability of the Iraqi military and police forces to effectively handle security on their own

  • The enormous strain on the U.S. military in terms of personnel, recruiting, and morale

  • The fact that the vaunted war on terrorism does not come close to the level of threat posed by Nazism, Imperial Japan, or the Soviet Union

Those factors could well point the way to the next installment of In the Middle, I should think.

Phillip Winn is a registered Republican, but considers himself independent. He lives in Dallas, Texas, and didn't vote for President Bush in 2000, but did in 2004. He is a co-owner, designer, and technical administrator for

Eric Berlin is a registered Democrat who currently lives in Pasadena, California. Pretty predictable voting record: Gore '00, Kerry '04. He is a co-owner and Executive Producer of

In The Middle is an attempt to focus more on what unites us than what divides us. Can two reasonable people from opposite ends of the political spectrum put aside partisanship and meet in the middle? We think so. A topic is picked, e-mails are exchanged, and the results are published here.

In The Middle is a Blogcritics experiment. We're trying to talk about things civilly, and we strongly request that all commenters do the same. We seek polite comments and questions, not ideological rhetoric or personal attacks.

Be passionate, think before you write, respect others, and have fun!

Previous articles from the In The Middle crew have addressed Bill Bennett, Harriet Miers, Iraq as a "Media War," the CIA Leak Case, Samuel Alito, Jr, and Vice President Cheney.

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