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Smith’s Iraqi chaos

The mass of comments regionally and nationally about Oregon Republican Senator Gordon Smith’s outburst on Iraq, a subject on which he has not spoken a great deal since his initial vote in favor of going to war, has covered a broad range.

Gordon SmithIt’s become a test of the commentator: Smith is playing crass politics, scuffling off a sinking ship, positioning himself for re-election in 2008, or baring his soul, choosing his time for maximum pressure on President Bush, a personal expression of a sweep of time or coming to reasoned analysis, a brandishing of the law (or not), called “blistering” and sorrowful – take your pick of those and more.

You can find support for all in Smith’s Senate floor speech.

The fact that you can find so many of these things, and more, and counters to most of them, suggests the key point about his talk: It’s incoherence. Read the whole thing, and while the emotions – sadness, most notably – leap out, but you’ll trie yourself into a prezel to draw conclusions beyond that.

You can tell as much in Smith’s sum-up: “Those are my feelings. I regret them.” He regrets his feelings? Why should he do that? His vote, maybe; his silence, maybe. But why his feelings?

Near the start of his talk, he explains his silence this way: “I have been rather quiet because, when I was visiting Oregon troops in Kirkuk in the Kurdish area, the soldiers said to me: Senator, don’t tell me you support the troops and not our mission. That gave me pause.” There are sound answers to the objection, but not really as an explanation for silence – unless the point was that Smith was simply confused, bewildered, by the soldier’s comment. If he since has worked his way through to a response to the soldier’s comment, which would seem to be where he was headed, he doesn’t say so.

He does follow that anexdote with this: “But since that time, there have been 2,899 American casualties. There have been over 22,000 American men and women wounded. There has been an expenditure of $290 billion a figure that approaches the expenditure we have every year on an issue as important as Medicare. We have paid a price in blood and treasure that is beyond calculation by my estimation.” He suggests, in other words, being surprised and appalled by the scope of the cost. But this is not someting new: This cost has been gradually accumulating since mid-2003. Why wait to speak out until now? Were the numbers of 2,899 and 22,000 and $290 billion somehow more significant than the still-big figures a year or two ago? (Thereby offering evidence for the argument at Loaded Orygun that “comes in right on the cusp of a definitive shift, and drops in on the side poised to win.”)

And why would this have come as surprise? A few minutes later Smith, who describes himself as a student of military history, quotes Winston Churchill this way: “After the First World War, let us learn our lessons. Never, never believe that any war will be smooth and easy or that anyone who embarks on this strange voyage can measure the tides and the hurricanes. The statesman who yields to war fever must realize that once the signal is given, he is no longer the master of policy but the slave of unforeseeable and uncontrollable events.” Such history should have prepared Smith for the reality.

The senator does say, without contradiction elsewhere, that if he had known that there were no weapons on mass destruction back in early 2003, he would not have voted for war. Like many other supporters of the war back then (including a lot of congressional Democrats), revised history is now suggesting that information and analysis was so overwhelmingly on the side of buried WMDs that no counter-view was realistic. Re-read the reports of those days and you’ll find no lack of countering opinions that were swept under and not listened to, but that required a willingness to apply some skepticism to the Bush Administration’s proclamations. Neither Smith nor the many other recent regetters ought to be let off that easily.

What to do now? Smith really doesn’t have any clear suggestions. He sounds intrigued by the new Iraq commission report, but withholds endorsement or critique until he reviews it more thorough. (He says both that it had “good ideas” and that it is a “recipe for retreat.”) About our future in Iraq, he does say: “I do not believe we can retreat from the greater war on terror. Iraq is a battlefield in that larger war. But I do believe we need a presence there on the near horizon at least . . . if we are ultimately going to retreat, I would rather do it sooner than later. . .” The idea of “cutting and running” clearly still does not appeal to him, though his formulation of “cutting and walking” seems to feel a little better.

His prescription for Iraq? Here’s the final sentence of Smith’s Iraq statement: “So I will be looking for every opportunity to clear, build, hold, and win or how to bring our troops home.” And no, that sentence makes no more sense in context. Here’s the context for it, what seems to be at the core of his real analysis on Iraq:

Again, I am not a soldier, but I do know something about military history. And what that tells me is when you are engaged in a war of insurgency, you can’t clear and leave. With few exceptions, throughout Iraq that is what we have done. To fight an insurgency often takes a decade or more. It takes more troops than we have committed. It takes clearing, holding, and building so that the people there see the value of what we are doing. They become the source of intelligence, and they weed out the insurgents. But we have not cleared and held and built. We have cleared and left, and the insurgents have come back.

I, for one, am at the end of my rope when it comes to supporting a policy that has our soldiers patrolling the same streets in the same way, being blown up by the same bombs day after day. That is absurd. It may even be criminal. I cannot support that anymore. I believe we need to figure out how to fight the war on terror and to do it right. So either we clear and hold and build, or let’s go home.

So which is it – try to send a million American troops over there to “clear and hold and build,” or “cut and walk”? Smith doesn’t say.

He wants a rhetorical cake while eating it at the same time. “Lest anyone thinks I believe we have failed militarily, please understand I believe when President Bush stood in front of “mission accomplished” on an aircraft carrier that, in purely military terms, the mission was accomplished in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. But winning a battle, winning a war, is different than winning a peace.” So when he refers to “the war in Iraq” in the present tense, does he refer to the war we have won or the peace we have become mired in?

You’ll note – as many reporters and bloggers have – the use of the word “criminal” in his statement on the Bush Administration’s activities. Gordon Smith is a lawyer; he knows what the word means and that it has a specific meaning. After taking inquiries about, one of his spokesman remarked, “Don’t think of criminal in the sense that a law has been broken,” but in the sense of a metaphor or synonym for an outrage. But that makes no sense (even leaving aside Smith’s professional training in the law) in the context of the speech – he uses the word “criminal” immediately after the word “absurd,” making clear that he is making two distinctive types of comments.

The lack of straight-line clarity together with the abundance of loaded verbiage suggests to us that Smith’s floor comments were – as he is explicit about saying – really were based in an emotional reaction. You don’t get the feeling that he has though this through yet, that he has developed an intellectual reaction to match his emotions. He seems to be in search of answers clearer than those he has on offer at present.

Smith told the Oregonian afterward that his speech was aimed at the Bush Administration and the policymaking atmosphere in Washington (not that a lot of conclusions, other than signalling a new break with the Bush Administration line, is apparent here), not at his re-election prospects for 2008. The best argument in favor of that is the range of tones, ideas and viewpoints – often multiple about the same things – through the speech. But some of that gets into matters of motivation, which few of us are easily able to assess.

Politically, the floor speech does give him a little more maneuvering room in his ongoing efforts to present himself as an independent moderate Republican. Its relative lateness, coming as it does after a general election which marked a massive repudiation of the Bush Administration (presumable in Oregon as well as nationally), may limit its political usefulness to him.

He may be on a journey of sorts here. A more sharply defined followup talk some weeks or months hence may accomplish more of what he’s looking for than this one did.

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