John Murtha's call for withdrawal

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The mainstream media have played Democratic Rep. John Murtha's call for U.S. withdrawal from Iraq as a "hawk turned dove" story. See, e.g., Dana Milbank in the Washington Post. In fact, the story is more interesting—and more complicated—than that. "All of us want to get rid of Saddam," Murtha said. He believes that Bush simply "went about it the wrong way." But he voted for the Iraq war resolution in October 2002. In April 2004, he said, "We cannot prevail in this war as it is going today," and he went on to say, "We either have to mobilize or we have to get out."

Then on Wednesday, he said it was time to get out.

You can ridicule Murtha's positions as inconsistent—against the war, for it, for more troops, for withdrawal. But there's also a common thread. In September 2002, he was arguing that the war might dry up sources of intelligence about Islamist terrorists (though how much good intelligence were we getting out of Iraq?). He seems pretty consistent in arguing, as John McCain and others have, that we didn't send over enough troops. As the second-ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Committee and ranking Democrat on the Defense subcommittee—and as a marine who re-enlisted to serve in the Vietnam War—he has a long-standing interest in the welfare of the troops, and he has argued, as have others, that the Army is overstretched by our commitment to Iraq. You can reconcile his call for more troops 18 months ago and his call for withdrawal today by noting that he has always believed more troops were necessary and that he decided, now, that there would never be enough and it would be better to leave.

Note that he doesn't have much to say about the Iraqis or what will happen to them if we withdraw. The welfare of our troops is evidently a higher consideration for him. Of course, if the welfare of our troops were our only consideration, we never would have gone into Normandy. Our troops suffered more casualties there in a few days than they have suffered in Iraq. But that's another war.

Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, while declining to endorse Murtha's call for withdrawal, hailed him for speaking out. They sound like an odd couple—the tailored lady from ultraliberal San Francisco, the rumpled marine from the railroad-and-coal town of Johnstown, Pa.—but actually they're political allies. And their one-two statements—his call for withdrawal, her hailing his courage—were most likely carefully choreographed. Murtha was the campaign manager for Pelosi's 2001 campaign for minority whip, in which she beat the less liberal Steny Hoyer of Maryland. Murtha, with his seniority on Appropriations, his credibility as a supporter of defense spending, and his care for the welfare of the troops, has provided key moderate support for Pelosi in the Democratic caucus.

They're not as odd a couple as you might think. Pelosi may represent sophisticated San Francisco, but she grew up in Baltimore, where her father, Tommy D'Alessandro, was a street-smart pol who served in Congress and as mayor of the city. Her brother Tommy D'Alessandro Jr. also served a term as mayor. Pelosi kept up her Maryland ties and worked effectively to help Jerry Brown win the 1976 Maryland presidential primary.

She was also following precedent in establishing a San Francisco-coal country alliance in a Democratic leadership race. Thirty years ago, her predecessor in her San Francisco seat, Phil Burton, was running for majority leader. One of his key allies was Wayne Hays, who represented a coal country district in Ohio close by and similar to Murtha's district. Hays was generally counted a hawk and was a gruff insider who exerted dictatorial power over House employees as chairman of the House Administration Committee; Burton was a liberal and a dove who was also an aggressive and effective pol. He was especially famed for his redistricting plans in California and kept up closely with redistricting around the country. (He once came up to me in the Capitol and said, gruffly, "They're giving too much of Grant County to [Robert] Kastenmeier [then congressman from the 2nd District of Wisconsin].")

Burton and Hays came up one vote short of Jim Wright in the majority leader race in 1976. Pelosi won by a bigger margin over Hoyer in 2001, partly because the Democratic caucus is smaller and has a higher percentage of liberals. That was apparent in the October 2002 vote on the Iraq war resolution, when a majority of House Democrats (unlike a majority of Senate Democrats) voted against the war. Pelosi campaigned actively for no votes while Dick Gephardt, in his final months as minority leader, voted aye but did not lobby; Murtha, as usual, stayed pretty much behind the scenes. But he was there by Pelosi's side when she was easily elected minority leader after the 2002 elections.

The Murtha-Pelosi two-step, if that's what it was, was politically effective Wednesday. It made the headlines, gave heart to the left Democratic base that hates the war and hates George W. Bush, and left Pelosi, the rest of the Democratic leadership, and the rest of the caucus off the hook—they didn't have to support Murtha's call for withdrawal or actively oppose it. They could just keep criticizing Bush. But they may have been too clever by half. Today the House Republican leadership decided to have a vote on a resolution "that the deployment of United States forces in Iraq be terminated immediately." Democrats will object that that's not exactly what Murtha called for; he wanted withdrawal "at the earliest practicable date."

But it does give a lot of Democrats a hard choice, between propitiating their left-wing base and keeping in line with the large national majority that opposes an immediate withdrawal. Speaker Dennis Hastert framed the issue favorably to his side.

"We want to make sure that we support our troops that are fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan," he said. "We will not retreat." I wonder how Phil Burton and Wayne Hays would have handled this.