By PHILIP GAILEY, Times Editor of Editorials
Published November 27, 2005
As it turned out, it took a hawk - not a dove - to transform the political debate over Iraq from an argument over prewar intelligence to the question of when and how we extricate ourselves from a quagmire.
U.S. Rep. John P. Murtha is anything but antiwar. He is a promilitary Pennsylvania Democrat and a gruff Marine combat veteran of Korea and Vietnam who shared Ronald Reagan's anti-Communist views and supported Reagan's covert aid to Nicaraugan Contras. He also strongly backed President Bush's decision to invade Iraq. That's why his call for an immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops stunned his colleagues and the White House. "The U.S. cannot accomplish anything further in Iraq militarily," he said. "It is time to bring (the troops) home."
Murtha's about face on the war rallied his Democratic colleagues on Capitol Hill and provoked a scurrilous attack from White House spokesman Scott McClellan, who accused the 73-year-old Murtha of "endorsing the policy positions of Michael Moore and the extreme liberal wing of the Democratic Party" and suggested he was advocating a "surrender to terrorists."
The attacks on Murtha by several House Republicans were even more shameful - they smeared him as a "cut-and-run" coward. Bush tried to call off his party's attack dogs by describing Murtha as "a fine man, a good man who served our country with honor and distinction." The president said even though Murtha came to his position on Iraq "in a careful and thoughtful way," a U.S. withdrawal would be a disaster for Iraqis and a setback in the war on terrorism.
Bush may be right and Murtha may be wrong, but this is a debate worth having, even if many Democrats are not ready to choose sides. If Murtha's withdrawal proposal was put to the test, most Democrats probably would vote against it. Former President Bill Clinton now calls the war "a big mistake." But his wife, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, sounding the White House mantra on Iraq, says it would be "a big mistake" to withdraw immediately, by which Murtha means over six months. Other Senate Democrats, including John Kerry and Joe Biden, have been edging toward a phased withdrawal over a longer period of time.
If nothing else, Murtha at least has everyone talking about an exit strategy.
Murtha has accomplished what Democratic Party doves could never have done with shrill attacks on the president and U.S. foreign policy that offended most Americans.
First it was Michael Moore, the leftist filmmaker who trashed his country before foreign audiences. For a while he became the scruffy face of the antiwar movement. Senate Democrats took a break from business to attend the Washington debut of his controversial antiwar, anti-Bush documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 . And former President Jimmy Carter even invited Moore to be his guest in the VIP section of the 2004 Democratic National Convention. Moore soon became an embarrassment to Democrats, if not the antiwar movement.
Then along came Cindy Sheehan. She and a few supporters camped outside President Bush's Texas ranch and set off a news media frenzy. Antiwar activists embraced Sheehan as the perfect face of their movement - a mother who lost a son in Iraq. Sheehan, who struck me as a little flaky, was a summer sensation before Hurricane Katrina blew her off the political map. She still travels the country denouncing the war and the president who started it, but most Democrats keep their distance and the press now all but ignores her as yesterday's story.
Meanwhile, Democrats who have been all over the map on the war kept muddling along. They found it easier to criticize Bush than to offer serious alternatives to his Iraq policy. They were so busy calculating the politics of the war they were slow to pick up on what was happening in American public opinion. The polls show that a majority of Americans have turned on the president and the war. As usual, the public was ahead of the politicians. John Murtha heard the message in his blue-collar Pennsylvania district and from wounded soldiers he visited while his colleagues were mostly listening to themselves.
For the moment, John Murtha is a hero among Democrats. They will do anything for this ex-Marine except come out of their political foxholes and follow him out of Iraq.