Our look a couple of days back at Senator Gordon Smith’s striking comments on Iraq argued that his statement wasn’t very coherent – didn’t have a well-reasoned take 0n the situation in Iraq or on what to do next. What did hold it together was a tone – of sadness in what had transpired, and a regret in having placed faith in the Bush Administration’s handling of it.
The tone is clear enough to appear to mark Smith now as “anti-war” (though he still seems to hold out, alongside the idea of a pullback, the concept of burrowing in and hunkering down for a decade and more). More clearly, it marks him as an administration critic.
The subuject of another Republican senator, a till-now loyalist, turning on the White House over Iraq, was enough to draw some back and forth at the press briefing (“the gaggle”) this morning. For your reading, here’s the transcript of what was said.
Taken generally, Senator Smith appears not to be in high favor at 1600 Pennsylvania. The White House also said on the record that it doesn’t know if its party’s senator from Oregon is in favor of democracy or not.
“Mr. Snow” is Tony Snow, the White House press secretary. The reporters asking questions are not specifically identified.
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Q Okay. Republican Senator Gordon Smith, last week, said, “Our soldiers patrolling the same streets in the same way, being blown up by the same bombs day after day, it’s absurd. It may even be criminal,” and that he can no longer support this. What is your reaction to a Republican senator saying that what’s going on right now in Iraq is criminal?
MR. SNOW: Well, we dispute the “criminal” part, obviously, and at the same time, understand the senator’s concern. We share the concern about not doing well enough fast enough. But do not assume that people are simply being blown up. They are on missions. And as General Chiarelli said last week, “There’s not an engagement our people have lost, but it is still important to continue the work of building greater capability and capacity on the part of the Iraqi government and helping them out.”
People on both sides are going to have disagreements, much as Joe Lieberman, formerly a Democrat, apparently run out of his party for disagreeing with what was seen as orthodoxy at that time, but Gordon —
Q Republican Senator Smith is challenging the strategy. What he basically said yesterday, as well, was, when you do the same thing over and over again without a clear strategy for victory, that is dereliction, that is deeply immoral. Such is the dispute. He’s saying what the President is doing is immoral.
MR. SNOW: Well, then we disagree.
Q Tony, first of all, the —
Q You’re just going to blow it off? A Republican senator is saying the President’s policy may be criminal and it’s immoral, and you’re just saying, we just disagree?
MR. SNOW: And what would you like me to say? Should I do duels at 10 paces?
Q Don’t you think you should answer for that? You’re saying — you’ve said from this podium over and over that the strategy is a victory, right? And you have a Republican senator is saying there is no clear strategy, that you don’t have a strategy.
MR. SNOW: Well, let’s let Senator Smith hear what the President has to say. We understand that this is a time where politics are emotional in the wake of an election. And you know what? Senator Smith is entitled to his opinion. But I’m not sure exactly what you would like —
Q Well, how about answering the central thrust about the strategy, not about, like, politics —
MR. SNOW: Okay, the strategy is pretty simple. If you take a look, for instance — if you take a look at the Baker-Hamilton commission report, what do they talk about? They talk about building greater capability on the part of the Iraqis so that you can have an Iraqi government that governs itself, sustains itself, defends itself, who’s ally in the war on terror is a democracy.
I don’t think it’s immoral to be a democracy. I don’t think it’s immoral to have a state that is able to stand up and defend itself against acts of terror. I don’t think it’s immoral to defend the Iraqi people against acts of terrorism aimed at Muslims.
Q The Senator is not saying that’s immoral. He’s saying that the U.S. — he’s saying, of course democracy is a great goal —
MR. SNOW: You know what, Ed? Ed, I’ll tell you what. You’re engaging in an argument and you’re trying to fill in the gaps in a —
Q It’s not an argument. It’s a Republican senator saying it, not me. It’s a Republican senator saying it, and he’s not —
MR. SNOW: Then tell me exactly what —
Q — of course he’s in favor of democracy.
MR. SNOW: Tell me —
Q Are you saying Republican Senator Smith is not in favor of democracy?
MR. SNOW: Well, I don’t know. You just said he said it’s immoral; when I listed the elements of the policy, you said that’s not what he was talking about. So please tell me what he was talking about.
Q He’s saying that day after day, that now U.S. soldiers are patrolling the same streets, that they’re caught up in the middle of a civil war — not about the government there —
MR. SNOW: Okay, here’s what’s immoral: the killing of American soldiers. We agree.
Q All right, no —
MR. SNOW: Look, you’re trying to engage me in a debate, the particulars of which I apparently am unaware and can’t find.