Thursday, December 07, 2006

Hamilton, Bayh and the Iraq disaster

Hamilton, Bayh and the Iraq disaster

By Mark Curry and Brian A. Howey
for the Howey Political Report Dec. 7, 2006

WASHINGTON - As Americans began to come to grips with a war in Iraq it is not winning, according to the incoming secretary of defense, two Hoosier Democrats, Lee Hamilton and U.S. Sen. Evan Bayh, were thrust into the national lens this week.

The blunt and bleak assessment of Hamilton and former Secretary of State James A. Baker III came in the week Sen. Bayh formed his presidential exploratory committee. The same day those papers were filed, Bayh questioned Robert M. Gates in a Senate confirmation hearing.

Gates rocked the nation when Sen. Carl Levin asked if the U.S. was “winning the war.” Gates responded, “No we are not.” Bayh asked Gates how he could be confident the president would heed his counsel. “Senator, because he asked me to take the job,” Gates replied. As the New York Times described the scene: Bayh waited for a more elaborate answer, and, realizing one was not coming, said simply, “He asked the others to take the jobs as well.”

“He impressed me as being candid and open minded, more realistic than what we’ve been seeing out of the administration these last six years,” Bayh said on CNN, explaining that he would vote to confirm Gates. “That said, simply changing the face at the Pentagon isn’t enough. We need a new policy that depends on what’s going on in the President’s mind. I’m not convinced that the President quite yet understands what needs to be done in Iraq.” Bayh referred to the leaked memo by National Security adviser Steven Hadley and said, “Ultimately, will he listen? Hadley leaked a memo with doubts about al-Maliki. Even (Donald) Rumsfeld was considering other options. Gates is a good man, but will he (President Bush) listen? Only time will tell.”

On Wednesday, it was Hamilton’s turn and he and Baker issued a stunning report that, when taken into context of the political rhetoric Americans heard in the weeks before the Nov. 7 elections, was jarring.

“We no longer can afford to stay the course,” Baker said in presenting the report at a news conference. “If we do what we recommend in this report, it will certainly improve our chances for success.”

Hamilton echoed his colleague’s sentiments, saying the Iraqi people are “suffering great hardship” and their lives must be improved. “The current approach is not working and the ability of the United States to influence events is diminishing,” Hamilton said. “Our ship of state has hit rough waters. It must now chart a new way forward.”

Hamilton called the situation “grave and deteriorating.” The group’s co-chair said, however, that “not all options have been exhausted.”

The report suggests: “By the first quarter of 2008, subject to unexpected developments in the security situation on the ground, all combat brigades not necessary for force protection could be out of Iraq. At that time, U.S. combat forces in Iraq could be deployed only in units embedded with Iraqi forces, in rapid-reaction and special operations teams and in training, equipping, advising, force protection and search and rescue.”

Hamilton outlined three important points: “Our three recommendations are equally important and re-enforce each other. (1) A change in the primary mission of U.S. forces. (2) Prompt action by the Iraqi government to achieve milestones and national reconciliation. And (3) A new and enhanced diplomatic effort in Iraq and within the region.”

NBC analyst Tim Russert reacted to the press conference, saying, “I was so taken by the bluntness and how bleak this report is.”

President Bush responded by saying, “This report gives a very tough assessment of the situation in Iraq. We will take every proposal seriously, and we will act in a timely fashion.” He urged Congress to take the group’s proposals seriously and work with the administration and find “common ground” on Iraq policy. “The country is tired of pure political bickering,” Bush said. In this mornings presser with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Bush referred to Iraq as “unsettled.” When pressed, Bush said, “It’s bad in Iraq. Did that help?”

U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Dick Lugar reacted: “I welcome the contributions of Secretary James Baker, Congressman Lee Hamilton and the entire Iraq Study Group. They have undertaken an exhaustive inquiry into the current situation in Iraq. The recommendations of the Iraq Study Group should be absorbed and considered by policymakers who are grappling with the complexities of Iraq policy and issues involving the broader landscape of the Middle East. I also welcome the concurrent activity in the Bush administration to review present policies and consider new approaches. As this process moves forward, Congress must be a constructive partner to the administration. Senator Biden has indicated that beginning in January, the Foreign Relations Committee will hold a series of hearings to continue our examination of U.S. options in Iraq. Since the summer of 2002, the Foreign Relations Committee has held roughly 40 hearings on Iraq under the chairmanships of Senator Biden and myself. We look forward to welcoming administration officials, members of the Iraq Study Group and other outside experts as we seek their views about how the United States can achieve the best possible outcome in Iraq.”

U.S. Sen. John McCain said this morning, “The one thing worse than an exhausted Army and Marine Corps is a defeated Army and Marine Corps.” McCain called the ISG report a “recipe for disaster” as he met with Baker and Hamilton. “Withdraw the troops and still have American troops embedded with Iraq troops puts at risk a large number of advisers,” he said.

Hamilton acknowledged, “You’re absolutely right about that. Those men and women will be in a place of danger. We will have combat forces there to protect the embedded forces. It’s a risky mission.” But Hamilton pushed back, saying at one point that Congress had been much too “timid” in its oversight of the war.

Bayh on the talk shows

Sen. Bayh received a huge amount of national exposure this week, from his Sunday appearance on ABC’s “This Week,” to the Gates confirmation hearing on Tuesday, and appearances on CNN, MSNBC and Fox News.

On the war in Iraq, Bayh told ABC’s George Stephanopolous, “This problem is not going to be solved in Washington, not by the national security adviser and not by the president of the United States. It is going to be solved by Iraqis in Baghdad and across Iraq. If they don’t reconcile themselves to a common future and a common country, we are only operating on the margins.” Asked what he would do about U.S. presence, Bayh said, “I’ll tell you exactly what I’d do. I’d do the opposite of what the President did a month ago when he picked up the phone and called Prime Minister Al-Maliki and said, ‘Don’t worry; we’re staying.’ I’d pick up the phone and say, ‘You know what? We’re not staying forever.’”

Bayh said the central government must assert its authority. “If you do, we’ll stand by you and make a go of it because we want you to be successful. But if you don’t, there’s nothing we can do for you.” Asked if he would start to withdaw troops, Bayh said, “I’d like them to know we’re going to begin the process now to bring our presence in Iraq to a close. To show that I meant business, I would bring out a small amount of troops ... in the next few months.” Bayh said he would call a “Dayton-like conference” to “let them resolve their differences. Then I would time our departure in a way that gave them the best chance. If they can’t get their act together, we can’t do this for them.”

Bayh criticized President Bush’s statement in Amman, Jordan, last week that, “We’re going to stay as long as the Iraqis want us.” Bayh said, “That is not an acceptable standard for our troops. It’s not the advice he’s getting that matters, it’s what’s in his mind and I don’t think he grasps the essential truth there yet.”

On MSNBC, Bayh was asked by Nora O’Donnell, “Senator, let me ask you, you voted for the Iraq war, do you believe it was a mistake?”

Bayh responded, “Saddam had no weapons of mass destruction. That’s why I voted like I did, I thought that leaving weapons like that in the hands of a man like him was a danger to the United States. Knowing what we know now, I would not cast the same vote.”

Bayh stakes bid on national security

While Bayh spent much of 2006 building a $10.7 million war chest and assembling a highly lauded campaign staff, he is hoping to use not only his red state political successes and executive experience in Indiana to his advantage, but as a pragmatic voice on national security. He has worked all year to cultivate and nurture that reputation. In a speech last February he said a “tough and smart” approach to Iraq would “establish benchmarks for success, a timeline for progress, accountability for results and candor about how we are doing.”

He has repeatedly criticized Republicans for being “a lot better at national security politics than national security policy,” and claimed the administration’s "stunning incompetence” has “undermined our security.”

“Iraq is the foremost example,” he said in a July speech. “They have turned it into a tragic, tragic mess.” As a member of two key committees, Armed Services and Intelligence, Sen. Bayh will have an opportunity in the next Congress to help make good on his oft-repeated boast that “Democrats can do better.” In order to do that, he will first have to face down those from his own party who seek to oppose him. Bayh was an early proponent for the war in Iraq, and his October 2002 vote to authorize an invasion disappointed even some Indiana Democratic activists who supported his governorship. He continues to try and rally Democrats to his cause.

“If people don’t trust us with our lives, they’re unlikely to trust us with anything else,” Bayh told thousands of Democrats during his travels through two dozen states in the past year. Mike Glover of the Associated Press wrote that during a visit to Iowa on Monday Bayh urged Democrats to “seek practical answers to the daily challenges facing Americans. If not, the party’s control of Congress could be brief.”

Bayh’s critical timing

The announcement last Sunday on ABC that he would form an exploratory committee, timed only two days before the Gates hearing, has helped to substantiate Bayh’s security credentials. The resulting widespread media attention may also serve to bolster his standing in polls that consistently rank him in the bottom tier among potential 2008 contenders. Last week the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute released a likeability poll of 20 top American political figures and Bayh finished 16th, below George Bush but above John Kerry. A full three-quarters of respondents indicated they did not have enough information about Bayh to decide if they like him or not, suggesting support for a Bayh candidacy has the potential to grow if he can manage to get his message out to the voters.

This weekend the former governor will take his message directly to the people of New Hampshire, where dissatisfaction with President Bush and the war in Iraq looms so large that for the first time in more than 100 years Democrats captured both state houses in the midterms.

One Granite State voter who was very happy with that outcome is Frank Murphy, the retired social worker who for two years served as Democratic chair for the town of Keene. In an interview conducted yesterday by telephone, Murphy told HPR that he hasn’t decided yet whether he will attend a Bayh event planned in his hometown this Sunday. He said he may be out drumming up support for the presidential candidate he endorses, former Alaskan Sen. Mike Gravel, who will also be in town. Murphy did say that he approved of Bayh’s questioning during the Gates hearing.

“I think everybody did well,” Murphy said of the hearing. “I don’t think [Bayh] said anything that made him stand out above the crowd. I thought his remarks were useful and illuminating and I was glad he made them.” But asked if he thought New Hampshire Democrats would be troubled by Bayh’s initial support of the Iraq war, he said, “That’s tough to say. There aren’t that many people that are aware of the vote. Of course in the campaign they would be. I think if you voted for it at this point it’s a negative, but then you have to look at the fact we voted for John Kerry in the last election, who voted for the Iraq war resolution. I don’t think it’s considered a good vote.”

In fact, a substantial majority of Americans supported the invasion of Iraq, although a Pew analysis at the time noted “the level of public support depends upon several important contingencies: whether or not U.S. allies and the United Nations go along with the effort; the level of potential casualties; and the nature of the evidence discovered by the U.N. weapons inspectors.” And, of the top Democrats considered possible presidential material at present, only U.S. Sen. Barack Obama can say he opposed the war from the beginning. Still, Bayh can expect concerns about Iraq to dominate just about wherever he goes, especially now that he’s offically a potential candidate looking for campaign funding. In the past week he’s been to Ohio, Minnesota and Illinois. Next week he visits Florida and Texas.

Like every other presidential candidate, Indiana’s junior senator will be asked to answer important questions related to Iraq in the months ahead. Donors and voters will want to know why he supported the invasion, how he reacted as the situation evolved and what he thinks should be done next. He will also be judged on his ability to shape legislation and policy impacting our role in that country. His remarkable career has anticipated a guiding role in national politics, yet he has landed in the midst of a peculiar American trauma, a time calling for the strongest brand of leadership. As Murphy said at the end of our interview, “If you’re in contact with the senator, tell him to keep working. America is in difficulty.”

Evan Bayh has a year to make the case that he possesses the strength and intelligence to lead Democrats and the country through the difficult years that lay ahead.


Blogger Lauren said...

My name is Lauren and I'm a graduate student at Columbia Journalism
School. I'm working on a story about the candidate draft movements and I was wondering if you would be able to speak with me about this. I was hoping we could talk sometime this week. I can be reached at

3:18 PM  
Blogger marktc said...

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8:43 PM  

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