U.S. Rep. Brian Baird just got back from the Triangle of Death, south of Baghdad.
Baird, a Democrat who represents Vancouver and southwest Washington, appears to enjoy being in uncomfortable spots.
In 2002, Baird helped lead the unsuccessful effort in Congress against giving President George W. Bush authorization to go to war. With 70 percent of the House voting aye, Baird was undoubtedly in the minority.
Now, fresh from eight full days in volatile Iraq, Baird probably feels alone again. He's a Democrat who thinks the surge is working and wants his fellow lawmakers to keep mum about pulling out. He believes that talking about withdrawal sends the wrong message to the wrong people.
WW asked Baird about his recent trip as well as his personal journey from being someone who wanted to keep out of Iraq to one who wants to stay in.
WW : What did you learn on your trip?
Brian Baird: The gist of it is that the invasion was one the biggest mistakes in American history. But, at the same time, we're there and a premature, precipitous withdrawal might be a comparable mistake just as we're starting to turn the corner. We're making some progress.
Originally, you voted against giving Bush the authorization to go to war. But now you're saying we're this close to turning the corner with the surge?
Well, it's not just the surge. The Iraqi people themselves are rising up and saying, "We've had enough of al-Qaeda." And that's very important. I think the addition of troops is allowing us to take proactive steps and go after some of the bomb-making factories and things of that sort. The more you take one place down, the more you can lead the fight to take somebody else down. Plus, the Iraqi military and police are starting to stand up. There are areas that were no-go zones that are relatively quiet today. Not to make it sound overly easy, but there are areas that are without question better.
But it seems from over here that the Iraqi government isn't working.
We went into that country, dismantled their military, police force, civil government, infrastructure, left the borders open to infiltration, left the arms caches unguarded and shut down businesses, leaving them with no or little income and great resentment. The government is trying to function in very difficult circumstances. That's not to say that things are good, [but] we need to give them more time. I have great respect for Gen. [David] Petraeus [commander of all American Iraqi forces] and Ambassador [Ryan] Crocker. And I think we need to give them time and some space to operate and work with the Iraqi government and others.
Haven't we heard for years that we need to give military leaders just a bit more time?
I'm absolutely aware that saying everything will work is overly optimistic. This is a very tough neighborhood. The country has been through terrible experiences. There is factional infighting. And, even if we give them more time, there's a possibility that it won't work out. We need to be honest about the risks and costs, and I don't feel the administration has been. Recognizing that, I still believe that the positive signs I've seen suggest that there is at least the possibility that we can make a go of this, and that is worth continuing the current troop level at least for a few more months.
A soldier said it to me pretty well. He said, "Look. I would like to go home tomorrow if I could. I miss my family. I don't like to be facing the possibility that I could be killed. But we've already lost so many lives and we're starting to make some progress. It would be a shame to throw it all away now just when the tide seems to be turning a bit. I'm willing to stay here as long as it takes to do the job." And I was hearing this from many, many soldiers. If we withdraw, the consequences will really be quite bad.
Some presidential candidates, and your party's leaders, are talking about withdrawal.
I think right now it would be a mistake, and I also think we need to be conscious of the consequences our votes and discussions (can have) on the ground over there and what we're telling to both our allies and to the insurgents. Too often people aren't. For instance, some members use the words "baby-sitting operation." I think that's pretty condescending in an area where people are getting their heads cut off.
Does that mean talking about pulling out "gives comfort to our enemies"?
I wouldn't say it that way. I would say it causes strategic decisions that may take people away from collaboration rather than moving them toward collaboration. To that extent, it may be counterproductive.
Are you saying that we shouldn't debate the war in our government?
I think we should have debate, absolutely. I just would encourage my colleagues to think very carefully about what the implications of our debates may be. I would never say we shouldn't debate anything. People can reasonably disagree. But we should be aware that people on the ground in the country are listening closely to those debates and making their decisions on that basis. Let me give you an example. Let's suppose you're Maliki [Nouri al-Maliki, Iraqi prime minister]. The administration focuses so much on al-Qaeda, but I think Iran is the bigger problem right now. You can imagine if you're Maliki you might side with Iran naturally. They're a better ally—maybe—than us. Or you might feel that you have to side with Iran because if we pull out and the Sunnis resurge, then you need to have Iran as an ally. Well, either of those scenarios, [coupled with] our threats of withdrawal, actually drive Maliki toward the Iranian camp. Either he goes with them because he thinks we're going to withdraw and they're going to have free rein, or he goes with them because we're going to withdraw and he has to defend himself against Baathists or Sunnis. Conversely, on the Sunnis' side, if they think we're going to withdraw, they may say, "Well, gee, we have to protect ourselves from the Iranian-Shia factions and therefore we need to plus up our strength." In both of those cases, [discussing] premature withdrawal tends to cause people to be less likely to work together, rather than more likely. Frankly, to be honest, I'm not sure I fully appreciated that prior to this visit. But I'm persuaded that it's an accurate assessment.
You had a change of heart just this visit?
There are two other things worth emphasizing. I met with leaders from throughout the region, and they were universally of the belief that it would be a terrible mistake for us to withdraw right now. One leader said to me, "Look. Your actions created much of this instability. You may think you can walk away, but we can't. We're stuck here. For you to create these destabilizing conditions and then leave leaves us in a very precarious position. In the long run, I think it threatens your own security." [Second,] there was so much universal opposition to partitioning Iraq, which [former U.S. ambassador to Croatia] Peter Galbraith and [Democratic senator from Delaware] Joe Biden have talked about. I had entertained it, but after these visits, I've come to believe it's a non-starter. There's no substitute to being on the ground. I recognize that in a few days it would be presumptuous to believe one's an expert. But I've been there five times in the last five years, twice in the last four months. We spent hours on the ground meeting with Sunni politicians, Shia politicians, our soldiers, our generals, our diplomats. I think it gives you a sense. When you listen, one-on-one, with Iraqi politicians—not filtered through public statement, not filtered through our media—you can discuss the various options, begin to get a better understanding of where they're coming from, in ways that, by nature, can't necessarily be public. I honestly believe that if the American people, the members of Congress, could go to that region and meet with Gen. Petraeus, meet with Ambassador Crocker, meet with the people we've met with, they would realize that we have no good choices before us, but that progress is being made, it's worth keeping the troop strength where it's at and that the consequences of pulling out would be much worse. When I say things are turning that doesn't mean I'm happy that we went in. But it does mean I think that now that we're there and now that we're seeing some progress, pulling out would be a significant error.
Baird, a 51-year-old psychologist and author, was first elected to the House in 1998.
Among Oregon's seven-person congressional delegation, only Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Portland) has not gone to Iraq.