A tale of two stories
Now, despite the BBC’s attempt to elevate Murtha’s importance, don’t be too concerned if you’ve never heard of him before. Neither have I, and I think its safe to say that I’m more tuned in to the goings on in Washington than the average American, much less the average Briton. I wouldn’t be surprised if Murtha joined the ranks of the BBC’s “influential congressmen” the moment he decided to call for troop withdrawals.
An influential Democratic congressman - who voted for the Iraq invasion in 2003 - has called for the immediate withdrawal of US forces from Iraq.
John Murtha - a decorated Vietnam War veteran - said US troops had become "a catalyst for violence" in Iraq.
But whatever the real degree of influence wielded by Mr. Murtha, the question arises: Given the highly partisan atmosphere that prevails in Washington these days, why is the fact that a relatively unheralded Democratic House member is expressing distress over and opposition to the effort in Iraq particularly noteworthy? Isn't this just what to expect? And make no mistake, the BBC thinks it is a big deal. At the time of writing, this is the main story on the America’s page of the BBC’s website, and between 5:30pm and 6:30 pm, BBC radio’s Five Live mentioned it no less than three times.
It is instructive to compare the BBC’s treatment of this marginally interesting story with another story about which many of you will almost certainly be unaware.
Two days ago, during a debate over an amendment on a defense authorization bill, Democratic Senator Joe Lieberman, who is perhaps not quite as influential as John Murtha (after all, he was only the Dem’s nominee for the office of Vice President of the US 5 years ago), took to the Senate floor to deliver a speech. It was both eloquent and, given the recent political strategy being employed by the Democratic party, surprising - so much so that I wouldn’t do it justice by simply reproducing selected snippets. Here, then, is the entire speech:
Mr. President, this is one of those quiet moments in the Senate with very few people in the Chamber when, in my opinion, something very important is happening. It is happening in good measure because of the two good men, my colleagues from Virginia and Michigan, who lead the Armed Services Committee, of which I am privileged to be a member. They are two gentlemen, two patriots, two people who have known each other for a long time, who work closely together, respect each other, even seem to like each other and, most important of all, trust each other.
Those qualities of personal trust and personal relationship have been too absent from our nation's consideration of the ongoing war in Iraq among our political leadership. We have, I am convinced, suffered from it.
It is no surprise to my colleagues that I strongly supported the war in Iraq. I was privileged to be the Democratic cosponsor, with the Senator from Virginia, of the authorizing resolution which received overwhelming bipartisan support. As I look back on it and as I follow the debates about prewar intelligence, I have no regrets about having sponsored and supported that resolution because of all the other reasons we had in our national security interest to remove Saddam Hussein from power – a brutal, murdering dictator, an aggressive invader of his neighbors, a supporter of terrorism, a hater of the United States of America. He was, for us, a ticking time bomb that, if we did not remove him, I am convinced would have blown up, metaphorically speaking, in America's face.
I am grateful to the American military for the extraordinary bravery and brilliance of their campaign to remove Saddam Hussein. I know we are safer as a nation, and to say the obvious that the Iraqi people are freer as a people, and the Middle East has a chance for a new day and stability with Saddam Hussein gone.
We will come to another day to debate the past of prewar intelligence. But let me say briefly the questions raised in our time are important. The international intelligence community believed Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Probably most significant, and I guess historically puzzling, is that Saddam Hussein acted in a way to send a message that he had a program of weapons of mass destruction. He would not, in response to one of the 17 U.N. Security Council resolutions that he violated, declare he had eliminated the inventory of weapons of mass destruction that he reported to the U.N. after the end of the gulf war in 1991.
I do not want to go off on that issue. I want to say that the debate about the war has become much too partisan in our time. And something is happening here tonight that I believe, I hope, I pray we will look back and say was a turning point and opened the road to Republican and Democratic cooperation, White House and congressional cooperation, to complete the mission. As Senator Levin said, no matter what anyone thinks about why we got into the war and whether we should have been in there, it is hard to find anybody around the Senate – I have not heard anybody – who does not want us to successfully complete our mission there. I feel that deeply.
If we withdraw prematurely from Iraq, there will be civil war, and there is a great probability that others in the neighborhood will come in. The Iranians will be tempted to come in on the side of the Shia Muslims in the south. The Turks will be tempted to come in against the Kurds in the north. The other Sunni nations, such as the Saudis and the Jordanians, will be sorely tempted, if not to come in at least to aggressively support the Sunni Muslim population. There will be instability in the Middle East, and the hope of creating a different model for a better life in the Middle East in this historic center of the Arab world, Iraq, will be gone.
If we successfully complete our mission, we will have left a country that is self-governing with an open economy, with an opportunity for the people of Iraq to do what they clearly want to do, which is to live a better life, to get a job, to have their kids get a decent education, to live a better life. There seems to be broad consensus on that, and yet the partisanship that characterizes our time here gets in the way of realizing those broadly expressed and shared goals.
“Politics must end at the water's edge.” That is what Senator Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan said, articulating the important ideal that we seem to have lost too often in our time. I found a fuller statement of Senator Vandenberg’s position, the ideal. I found it to be in some ways more complicated and in other ways much more compelling. I want to read from it. Senator Vandenberg said:
“To me ‘bipartisan foreign policy’ means a mutual effort, under our indispensable two-party system, to unite our official voice at the water's edge so that America speaks with maximum authority against those who would divide and conquer us and the free world.”
That speaks to us today – the threat of Islamist terrorism, the desire they have to divide us and, in that sense, to conquer us in the free world. Senator Vandenberg continued in his definition of what he meant by bipartisanship in foreign policy:
“It does not involve the remotest surrender of free debate in determining our position. On the contrary, frank cooperation and free debate are indispensable to ultimate unity of which I speak.”
In a word, it simply seeks national security ahead of partisan advantage.
I felt again in recent days and recent months how far we have strayed down the partisan path from Vandenberg's ideals. The most recent disconcerting evidence of this was the lead story from the Washington Post – it was in papers all over the country – last Saturday, November 12. I read from that story:
“President Bush and leading congressional Democrats lobbed angry charges at each other Friday in an increasingly personal battle over the origins of the Iraq war. Although the two sides have long skirmished over the war, the sharp tenor Friday resembled an election year campaign more than a policy disagreement.”
That is from Saturday's Washington Post. Campaign rhetoric over policy debate, and what about? About how we got into the war 2 1/2 years ago, not about how we together can successfully complete our mission in Iraq.
The questions raised about prewar intelligence are not irrelevant, they are not unimportant, but they are nowhere near as important and relevant as how we successfully complete our mission in Iraq and protect the 150,000 men and women in uniform who are fighting for us there.
I go back to Vandenberg's phrase; the question is how Democrats and Republicans can unite our voice “at the water's edge” against those who would divide and conquer us and the free world in Iraq, I add, and beyond.
The danger is that by spending so much attention on the past here, we contribute to a drop in public support among the American people for the war, and that is consequential. Terrorists know they cannot defeat us in Iraq, but they also know they can defeat us in America by breaking the will and steadfast support of the American people for this cause.
There is a wonderful phrase from the Bible that I have quoted before, “If the sound of the trumpet be uncertain, who will follow into battle?” In our time, I am afraid that the trumpet has been replaced by public opinion polls, and if the public opinion polls are uncertain, if support for the war seems to be dropping, who will follow into battle and when will our brave and brilliant men and women in uniform in Iraq begin to wonder whether they have the support of the American people? When will that begin to affect their morale?
I worry the partisanship of our time has begun to get in the way of the successful completion of our mission in Iraq. I urge my colleagues at every moment, when we do anything regarding this war that we consider the ideal and we are confident within ourselves. Not that we are stifling free debate. Free debate, as Vandenberg said, is the necessary precondition to the unity we need to maximize our authority against those who would divide and conquer us. But the point is to make sure we feel in ourselves that the aim of our actions and our words is national security, not partisan advantage.
Now we come to today. After reading that paper on Saturday, I took the original draft amendment submitted by Senator Warner and Senator Frist – it actually wasn't offered, but it was around – and Senator Levin and Senator Reid. I took the amendments back to Connecticut, and last night I looked them over. Neither one expressed fully what I hoped it would, but as I stepped back, I said that these two amendments – one Republican, one Democratic, unfortunate in a way, breaking by parties – are not that far apart.
I like the way in which the Warner amendment recited again the findings that led us to war against Saddam Hussein and, quite explicitly, cited the progress that has been made. I do think Senator Levin’s amendment doesn’t quite do this part enough, about the progress, particularly among the political leaders of Iraq. They have done something remarkable in a country that lived for 30 years under a dictator who suppressed all political activity, encouraged the increasing division and bitterness among the Shias, the Sunnis, and the Kurds. These people, with our help and encouragement, have begun to negotiate like real political leaders in a democracy. It is not always pretty. What we do here is not always most attractive. That is democracy. Most important of all, eight million Iraqis came out in the face of terrorist threats in January to vote on that interim legislation. Almost ten million came out to vote on a constitution, which is a pretty good document, a historically good document in the context of the Arab world.
What happened when the Sunnis felt they were not getting enough of what they wanted in a referendum? They didn't go to the street, most of them, with arms to start a civil war. They registered to vote. That is a miraculous achievement and a change in attitude and action. They came out to vote in great numbers and they will come out, I predict, again in December in the elections and elect enough Sunnis to have an effect on the Constitution next year. So I wish that some of that had been stated in Senator Levin's amendment. (end)
Again, given the opposition strategy that is currently being employed by the Democratic leadership on Capitol Hill, the fact that this speech was given by a prominent Democrat (even if not as prominent as the “influential” John Murtha, district 12 PA) on the floor of the Senate strikes me as a distinctly noteworthy event. Certainly, at any rate, equally noteworthy to Murtha’s news conference. Yet, if Justin Webb, Matthew Davis, or the rest of the BBC’s America watchers had any inkling whatsoever of Lieberman’s striking words, you will search in vain to find any indication of it on the BBC’s website. Democratic calls for supporting the war effort and an attempt to put the achievments made in Iraq into some perspective apparently just don't register on the BBC radar screen.
Now, looking at the disparity in the treatment of the two above news items, who could seriously argue that there is not an ideologically driven bias problem in the BBC newsroom?