One Responsible Antiwar Democrat

IT MAY BE THE RETURN OF A loyal opposition.

What separates a statesman from a politician is the foresight to place the national interest above fleeting partisan advantage – even at the cost of sharp reprisals from one’s colleagues. In that sense, Rep. Howard Berman, D-CA, is the statesman of the antiwar Left. In the most pitched partisan atmosphere in recent memory, he has crafted a bill that, if enacted, may well end the Iraq War – with strict deadlines for withdrawal – that is nonetheless deliberative in its scope and responsible in its execution.

In his words, H.R. 1263, “The Iraq Benchmarks Act,” “gives one final, definite opportunity for the mission to be successful.”[1] Most striking about the bill is the fact that it would reorient the debate over withdrawal around verifiable conditions on the ground. “It takes the president’s goals in undertaking the surge, codifies those goals in general terms as benchmarks, and insists on finding that those goals have been met or that substantial progress has been [made] in achieving those goals,” Berman said. “And it provides a Congressional role…to determine whether progress has been made.”

His bill would force the president to report to Congress by July 1 on progress made in stabilizing the Iraqi political front: that the Maliki government has made strides to provide equal security for Sunnis and Shi’ites and “the even-handed delivery of services and resources to all Iraqis.” By October 1, the president would have to show a decrease in sectarian violence. Congress would review this data every 90 days, and if goals are not met – if the surge fails – then the war would be deescalated within six months.

If it is determined that no progress is being made in the political, economic, and military goals that the president has set – that we’re not getting anywhere and there’s no substantial reduction in sectarian violence – it gives Congress an opportunity, without a filibuster, under very strict time limits, to [act]. If so, then the president is obligated to take the next 180 days after such a determination and withdraw forces from the non-Kurdish areas of Iraq with three important exceptions: military forces to protect our diplomatic missions, military forces employed in the training of Iraqi forces, and limited operations against terrorists in non-Kurdish areas of Iraq.

Thus, the bill would give the president’s surge the opportunity to succeed on its own terms. If it does not, U.S. troops will be redeployed within Iraq – not to Okinawa – and will still be empowered to strike terrorists throughout the country.

Firm benchmarks would create “leverage that empowers the administration and General Petraeus to overcome Iraqi resistance, particularly among Shi’ite leaders,” Berman emphasized. “If one looks at this administration’s dealings with the Iraqi government over the last three-and-a-half years, one could see how the Iraqi government believed they could do whatever they wanted, make no changes whatever, and American servicemen would always be there to rescue them.” The measure would codify a good cop-bad cop scenario, making plain the high cost of Iraqi intransigence.

Politically, the bill should appeal to moderates on both sides. “Those already persuaded that our presence in Iraq has resulted in futility will find this bill the most practical and likely way to create a process through which withdrawal can come. For those who believe success is critical, it is vital that we establish ground rules to determine if we are meeting them and demonstrate that success – and if we do, we bring Congress around to supporting the president’s efforts.”

Berman assessed, “It has something for both sides. It won’t be anybody’s favorite bill, but it wasn’t designed to be.”

It certainly has not enjoyed the favor of Nancy Pelosi or the House leadership, despite a recent L.A. Daily News story claiming the bill was “immediately embraced by Democratic leaders.” Rep. Berman says the legislation is not yet to the point where he is asking for co-sponsors. Yet it seems to this reporter than none are presently waiting in the wings – even though John Murtha’s six-month unilateral withdrawal plan received more than 100 cosponsors. They simply aren’t interested in allowing the possibility of victory.

Instead, the Democratic leadership has cannibalized portions of Berman’s bill and emphasized the deadlines for troop withdrawal. “They have developed an entirely incoherent bill,” he said. ”They have a provision to set goals, but there’s no follow-up to see whether we’ve met them. Then if we fail, the bill sets a date for withdrawal. And if we succeed, it sets a slightly later date for withdrawal. But we withdraw either way.”

This reporter would chalk that up to opposition ginned up by the uber-emotional left-wing blogosphere. The Congressman counts opposition from the Out of Iraq Congressional Caucus and “others who are not even in that caucus…They may want to withdraw, but they will have to live with the consequences of that withdrawal. It’s incredibly naïve to think we will just pull out of this conflict, and it will remain confined within the borders of Iraq.”

Although he says he does not “want to assume a doomsday prophecy” and that we “might be able to manage and contain” the damage of a hasty retreat (he describes the fallout after Vietnam as “largely self-contained”), he sees significant repercussions to leaving Iraq in a state of chaos:

[I]f we leave, Iran is for all kinds of reasons is tempted to fill the vacuum. The Sunni-Shi’ite conflict spreading to other countries could become a very destabilizing aspect of our failure. The Kurdish area of Iraq, the one area that has developed well, would then create its own government, and the Turks will look at that and not be happy. Shi’ites will then dominate in oil-rich areas, and the Saudi government will become more active against that regime [and vice-versa]. Most of all, when America wants to move in the future, it will be much harder to unite the American people and create credible fear within our enemies.

FrontPage Magazine does not endorse legislation, nor does it necessarily endorse this bill. Some reasonably object that, even if a goal is not met, that should not trigger a mandatory six-month redeployment. However, the political will to see the war much beyond that timeframe is eroding, even among conservative Republicans. When one hears Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell saying, “This is the last chance for the Iraqis…to step up and demonstrate that they can do their part to save their country,” and Minority Whip Trent Lott measuring Congressional patience in “months, not years,” one must face reality: if significant progress is not made – and reported – in Iraq, the nation teeters on the brink of a military implosion. And the Pelosis and Murthas of the world seem hell-bent on driving us over the cliff. When a (lone) Democratic Congressman voices sensible opposition that still allows the opportunity of victory, that is worth reporting.

Despite his moderate position on the war – moderation in the Democratic Party presently defined as one opposing instant surrender – Howard Berman is no conservative, nor even a centrist. “I would describe myself as a liberal. I would even say – although some of my colleagues may disagree – that I am a liberal in foreign policy.” He has drawn bitter criticism from the far-Left, including the DailyKos blog, for not supporting bills to cut off war funding or set timelines for withdrawal, but that leftist blog had to admit “his voting record is essentially unassailable.” He has a 90 percent rating from Americans for Democratic Action and a 100 percent voting record from Planned Parenthood (including opposition to the Partial Birth Abortion Ban). DailyKos itself ranks Berman’s lifetime voting record further Left than Dennis Kucinich!

Nor is he an administration sycophant. He and 70 other Congressmen filed an amicus curiae brief in federal court to stop the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping program. “I supported the war,” he explained, but that support has been tested by “three-and-a-half years of mistakes and miscalculations, whether it’s the number of troops going in, or assessing whether Saddam’s Iraq did in fact possess Weapons of Mass Destruction, or our interaction with the Iraqi Army.” Still, he is derided as “The Lieberman of California.”

And that seems to be precisely what he is: a dying breed of domestic liberal Democrat who puts the well-being of the armed forces and the desire to avoid international humiliation by al-Qaeda above the wishes of George Soros’s noise machine. Endless partisan wrangling, Berman says, has been “terrible for America’s role in the world.” He disagrees that America is engaging in illegal and immoral acts. “We had a vision that I think was noble and legitimate and important and we’ve undermined by virtue of our mistaken presence there,” he said. “Whatever it started out being, it is now one front in a global War on Terror.” As such, on this issue he is completely isolated from the current (but not the historical) mainstream of his party.

Perhaps he has few open backers at the moment because, by all objective benchmarks, the surge is succeeding. At the 30-day mark, with less than half the promised troops on the ground, sectarian violence is greatly diminished, and the Shi’ite militias are cooperating with U.S. troops. Maj. Gen. William Caldwell reports in the one month since the surge began, “there has been an over 50 percent reduction in murders and executions,” and the number of civilian deaths declined from 1,440 to 265. The surge has resulted in a dramatic reduction of Shi’ite death squads, the arrest of 700 Sadr-aligned guerrilla leaders, and the detention of more than a thousand more.

Unlike others in his party, who believe victory is “impossible” and our only hope is a “negotiated settlement,” Berman still quaintly hopes for his nation’s military success in a raging foreign conflict. “I think we ought to at least support the opportunity of our winning while there is still that hope.” The saddest part is he seems to be alone on the political Left in saying it. As a caucus of one, he is a living indictment of his colleagues.


1. Most quotations are taken from an interview Rep. Berman graciously granted this reporter on March 16, 2007.