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Republican John Murthas needed to rethink Iraq

By W. James Antle III
web posted November 21, 2005

The debate over the Iraq war has become partisan and predictable. Republicans spout slogans like "stay the course" and "cut and run" while confusing support for the administration with support for the troops. Democrats take positions that are less antiwar than anti-Bush.

Case in point is former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.). Writing last week in the Washington Post, Edwards said his past support for the Iraq war was wrong and based on flawed and misleading intelligence. "Had I known this at the time," he wrote, "I never would have voted for this war."

Never mind that others had the foresight to oppose the war from the beginning. Forget also that while many policymakers were convinced -- erroneously as it turned out -- that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction, only a minority actually favored launching a pre-emptive war against him in 2002-03. As the Democratic vice-presidential nominee in the 2004 campaign, Edwards repeatedly reaffirmed his vote, confining his criticism to the Bush administration's handling of the occupation. By this time, the absence of WMD was well known.

Edwards understood that every Democratic senator who voted against the first Gulf War took himself out of the running for president in 1992, including men of such stature as Georgia's Sam Nunn. The ambitious North Carolinian did not repeat their mistake before launching his own presidential bid. But as 2008 approaches, Edwards' pro-war vote has become a liability. It may be more accurate to say if Edwards knew then how unpopular the war would be now, he never would have voted for it.

Rep. John MurthaBut Congressman John Murtha (D-PA) is no John Edwards. A decorated Vietnam combat veteran with 37 years of service in the Marine Corps, Murtha has long been one of the most pro-defense Democrats in the House of Representatives. He also voted to authorize the use of force in Iraq. When he calls for the withdrawal of American troops, conservatives would be wise to consider his arguments rather than condemn them.

Instead House Republicans floated a straw-man resolution calling for an immediate withdrawal that was not Murtha's proposal and was overwhelmingly voted down. Bryan Preston, guest-blogging on columnist Michelle Malkin's website, sneered that the congressman's statement "would be news if he hadn't said the exact same thing a year ago." Actually, there is a pretty big difference between advocating increased troop levels and favoring withdrawal.

The anti-Murtha juggernaut will fail. The Pennsylvania Democrat may not be Scoop Jackson but he is certainly not Michael Moore, no matter how much some in the White House might want to link the two. A majority of Americans are now entertaining second thoughts about the Iraq war, not just a far-left fringe.

Yet by refusing to question the war or respond to changing circumstances on the ground, Republicans risk driving the country into the left's arms. An inability to rethink military action while combat is ongoing prevents a realistic assessment of our current policy -- a policy that a recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found 52 percent of Americans no longer believe to be worthwhile.

It does no disservice to our troops to question the policies of their civilian leaders. It is not surrender to abandon a course if it was misconceived from the beginning. We must not continue to spend blood and treasure in Iraq based on premises as faulty as those which led us into war in the first place.

The University of Chicago scholar Robert Pape noted that while Iraq never had a suicide bombing prior to the U.S. invasion, "Every year that the United States has stationed 150,000 combat troops in Iraq , suicide terrorism has doubled." The main thing that unites insurgents from different political, religious and ethnic factions is opposition to the American military presence.

Would the removal of this source of unity cause the factions to split? Does our open-ended commitment diminish Iraqi self-sufficiency? Are we tying down our military? Does Congressman Murtha have a valid point?

Republicans would do well to contemplate such questions without partisan blinders. Despite the antics of both parties' congressional leadership, the question of war and peace shouldn't be a red team versus blue team event. The GOP shouldn't be afraid of acquiring a few John Murthas of its own.

W. James Antle III is an assistant editor of The American Conservative and a senior editor for Enter Stage Right. The views expressed above represent his alone.

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