By Kimberley A. Strassel
WASHINGTON -- The war in Iraq brings to Joe Lieberman's mind an old Mark Twain story. "When a cat jumps on a hot stove, the cat never jumps on the stove again because the cat always assumes the stove is hot," says the senator from Connecticut. "But we are smarter than that. OK, so Vietnam didn't work out. But there are times when you've got to use force, to protect your security and to protect your principles."
Try telling that to the nuisance of congressional felines now prowling around the Iraq debate, eyeing it like a cooker on high boil. Next week will witness a Senate vote on a resolution condemning President Bush's new plan to quell growing sectarian violence and terrorism in Iraq by increasing the number of troops. While that vote may be largely symbolic, it comes amid far more ominous congressional calls to cut off war funding, to leave the Iraqis to settle their differences, to bring the troops home.
If ever the Iraq political debate was at a crossroads, it's now.
At the center of this fray is Sen. Lieberman, a sort of Horatio at the congressional bridge -- spiritedly trying to hold back a bipartisan stampede out of Iraq that he believes will result in devastating consequences for that country, the region, and, most importantly, U.S. national security.
"Iraq is the central part of a larger and ultimately longer-term conflict in the Middle East between moderates and extremists, between democrats and dictators, between Iran- and Iraq-sponsored terrorism and the rest of the Middle East . . . Are we going to surrender to them, surrender that country to them, and encourage people like them to be in authority and power all over the Middle East and in a better position to strike us again?" asks Mr. Lieberman. If only Livy had his quill today.
These are blunt words, and quite a few more flow from Mr. Lieberman throughout a lively interview in his office this past week. A born gentleman, he refrains from lobbing any pot shots at opponents. But he made clear that he felt Washington had been ducking an honest debate about the war and the consequences of abandoning it, hiding instead behind "cosmetic" resolutions and rhetoric. Four years into the conflict, Mr. Lieberman thinks there is value in remembering again why it is we're in Iraq.
This is well-trod ground for a man who supported not just the first Gulf War, but sponsored the 1998 Iraq Liberation Act that aimed to topple the regime. In 2003 "we did something that was right and courageous, which was to overthrow Saddam Hussein," says Mr. Lieberman. "He was a genocidal dictator, he tried to assassinate a former American president, he used chemical weapons [on his] . . . own people . . . He was a hater of the United States." Saddam was a danger, not to mention a barrier to creating a democratic Middle East that ceases to be a threat to the U.S.
This is why the senator remains unmoved today by those colleagues who have abandoned the cause, lamenting that they were "deceived" about the existence of WMD or that they have "lost confidence in the leadership of the president." Says Mr. Lieberman: "If you still think, not only that the original purpose of going in was right, but that how it ends will have a significant effect on American security for a generation or more to come, then you don't back away." And that, he says, counts even in the face of faltering public opinion. "I think we are elected to lead. . . . Americans are understandably responding to the carnage they see on TV every night, and what we have to urge them is not to surrender to the people who are causing that carnage."
Mr. Lieberman, who returned from his latest visit to Iraq in December, freely acknowledges what he believes were "the series of mistakes that were made after Saddam Hussein was overthrown," from the disbanding of the Iraqi army to our reluctance to send more troops (something he has advocated since the fall of 2003). Still, "we were getting to a point where we were making some significant progress -- and it is important not to overlook this. There were three elections held. Those were a powerful demonstration of what no one is able to deny, even those who now want to turn away and give up on Iraq. Which is that the majority of the Iraqi people want a better life for themselves and their families. The majority is not involved in sectarian violence and clearly not involved in terrorism."
There are still hopeful signs, he says. His recent trip included a stop in Ramadi in Anbar province -- an area thick with terrorist operatives -- where the senator saw evidence that "we've turned the tribal leaders to our side, against al Qaeda." Mr. Lieberman also felt from his discussions around the country that there were strong signs a "moderate, multiethnic coalition" was coming together among political leaders who would support Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in a renewed push to restore order. "This thing is still winnable," says Mr. Lieberman. "And it is critical that we take advantage of this opportunity to win."
Which gets to President Bush's proposal for more troops, a plan Mr. Lieberman enthusiastically endorses. "The people in Congress, and the public, were quite right in saying the president's got to come up with a different approach. And he did. It's better than any other plan I've seen because it holds the hope of success. Most of the other plans are effectively just giving up and walking away."
Are 21,500 additional troops really enough? "I wish it was more, truthfully," he answers, throwing his own wish of 35,000 or even 40,000. "But I believe it is adequate. What I hope is that it is implemented quickly." The troops will be vital to quelling what Mr. Lieberman sees as several very different conflicts currently raging in Iraq. In Baghdad, more U.S. soldiers will bolster more Iraqi forces who aim to hold neighborhoods wracked by violence between local Shiites and Sunnis. In Anbar, they will hunt down al Qaeda. More troops, says Mr. Lieberman, will also provide the opportunity "to change the dynamic" in the wider war on terrorism, by sending a message to Iran and others that the U.S. will not abandon the region's moderates who are struggling to create a new democratic order.
And what of those Americans looking for some guarantee this will succeed? "None of us can be certain [the president's plan] is going to work; all the choices we have in Iraq right now are difficult. But by far, the one that is the worst, and would have disastrous consequences, is to pick up and leave, in small steps or in one large step, for all the reasons we know," he replies, emphatically. He also wants to speak beyond the proposal itself, to its author. "I have admiration for the president, because I believe he gets it. He understands the challenge of our time, which is from Islamic extremism . . . And he knows what he's doing is not popular. But he's doing it because he thinks it is right for the country."
So what does that say about Mr. Lieberman's Senate brethren, those who now want to turn tail for Rome, abandoning Horatio and his damned bridge to the enemy? What, I ask, accounts for the growing numbers of senators -- including Republicans such as Nebraska's Chuck Hagel, Maine's Olympia Snowe, Oregon's Gordon Smith -- who could well provide the decisive votes to undermine their own president in a time of war?
Mr. Lieberman offers a few half-hearted (dare I say, gentlemanly) explanations for the Senate's frigid feet. Some feel let down because the WMDs were never found; others are "affected in a political context by the loss of public support." But he ends up back at a baser truth, conceding that "some people, I just think have been partisan about this -- and that, to me, is the worst reason."
Mr. Lieberman is also frustrated that those supporting the resolution are dodging the tough questions. "The resolution that is being talked about, in one sense I'd say it is offensive, because it is only cosmetic . . . It won't affect the implementation of a new plan to succeed, to win in Iraq. But at the same time it will send a mixed message to those who are fighting for us in Iraq, and those who are fighting against us in Iraq. It will be a very graphic example . . . that we are divided."
But what can Mr. Lieberman, President Bush and others do to stave off such a capitulation? For starters, he responds, his side needs to make sure the naysayers aren't allowed to just criticize. "Part of the case would be, look, if you are really against the war and you are really against what the president is proposing, have the nerve to do what Congress under the Constitution is authorized to do: Move to cut off the funding and then let's have a real head-to-head debate."
Critics of the president's approach might also be made to put forward an alternative, and justify their proposals -- beyond some vague notion that this must all be solved by the Iraqi parliament, which Mr. Lieberman explains isn't so much a solution as wish-fulfillment. "There is an attempt by some of my colleagues here to say that it is wrong to think a military victory is possible, and in the end this requires a political solution among Iraqis. Well, of course it does. But as President Bush said, and as I believe, you can't have a political solution, you can't have economic growth . . . unless you first have security. That's key. Security's basic."
The other alternative, of course, is to simply admit defeat. Some in Congress are working up the courage to say as much, and to further suggest that abandoning Iraq wouldn't be all that bad. "People say this is just like Vietnam, we could leave, and that would be that. That won't be that. We're in a war which has it origins in this part of the world, in the Middle East, in the conflict within Islam. If we pull out and essentially surrender to the extremists and terrorists, they are naturally going to follow us right back to our shores.
"If we leave the place collapses. And it's more than civil war, it's ethnic cleansing. The Iranians come in and dominate a good chunk of the country. Al Qaeda takes over a good part and uses it as a base. The Kurds [can sustain themselves] but it gets very ominous. . . . And then the same group of people who attacked us on 9/11, they achieve a victory, and they will use that victory to strike at us again."
Speaking of the threat posed by Iran, Mr. Lieberman has been equally unimpressed by the U.S.'s lack of resolve. "I'm troubled by this reflex reaction to talk with Iran. We're a strong enough country, when it seems productive we shouldn't hesitate to talk to anybody. But we ought to talk when it is in our interest, not theirs. And right now it is only in Iran's interest."
He says he's been encouraged by the administration's tougher stance in recent weeks, and in particular President Bush's decision to move another carrier battle group to the Gulf region -- "which sends a message to Iran."
Mr. Lieberman also notes that, "We know that some of our American soldiers are being killed by sophisticated IEDs from Iran. The evidence is just closed, clear, compelling. . . . I can't believe the concern expressed by some of my colleagues here about whether we have a right to take prisoner Iranians who we conclude are either supplying weapons to Iraqis who are using them to kill American troops, or training them to kill American troops." As for the rest of the world community, "they're in denial."
What is remarkable, I think toward the end of our conversation, is how spry and feisty the senator looks. He did, after all, just come off a draining year fighting a bitter battle -- against his own party -- for his political life. Mr. Lieberman is now officially an "independent," yet he takes care to describe himself as an "independent Democrat." Why identify with a party that is so uniformly opposed to him on an issue so dear to his heart? He admits he frets that foreign policy is the "Achilles heel" of his political side, and that "unless the Democratic Party can prove to the people that as a party it is not either pacifist or isolationist, but is willing to stand up and protect the security of the American people, then we're going to have trouble electing a president."
His own Democratic heroes are Truman and Kennedy. "The Kennedy inaugural was the single . . . speech that brought me into public life. Those famous words 'Pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.' That's what it has meant to me to be a Democrat." Horatio's challenge now is to convince his party -- and more than a few Republicans -- to also remember just who they are.
Ms. Strassel is a member of the Journal's editorial board, based in Washington.
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