Five Years Later, Delegation Reflects On Votes

To listen to them now, it might be easy to forget that most of the people representing Connecticut in Congress five years ago voted to give President Bush the authority to launch the Iraq war.

Only three voted against the authorization — Democratic Reps. Rosa DeLauro, Jim Maloney and John Larson. The rest — Democratic Sens. Christopher J. Dodd and Joseph Lieberman and Republican Reps. Chris Shays, Nancy Johnson and Rob Simmons — supported the war resolution.

Almost all, with the notable exception of Lieberman, have since said they regret the vote.

“Knowing what I know now, I would not have voted (for it), on two accounts,” said Shays, of the 4th District in Fairfield County, in a phone interview. “One, there weren't weapons of mass destruction. But the second count is if I had known how poorly we would fight the war the first three and a half years. So, you know we made horrendous mistakes.”

But he, like Lieberman, says the mistakes have been corrected — by the departure of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, new cooperation with Iraqi political leaders and the escalation of troop levels in Baghdad.

“The surge is working, and it's working dramatically,” Shays said. “And that is because we have put al-Qaida on defense, morning, noon and night.”

But the rest of the delegation, like the Democratic leaders in Congress and the party's candidates for president, strongly disagree, arguing that popular support for the war continues to ebb.

“We have an administration that made an error at the outset,” said DeLauro, D-3rd District, “that totally mismanaged this entire effort and sent young men and women to war without appropriate armor and enough troops to do the job. And I think the country has come to realize that.”

Such criticisms of the U.S. war plans are nearly universal, even from Lieberman, who has aggressively backed the Iraq invasion as good policy, even in the course of losing a 2006 primary that turned on the issue.

“The feeling of grief that I have, and anger, is about the mistakes that were made after Saddam was overthrown,” Lieberman said in an interview. “We're now on the right course.”

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In a state where polls have largely disapproved of the continuing occupation of Iraq, Simmons was one of just two members of the Connecticut delegation to lose his seat over the war, falling along with Johnson in the 2006 elections that shifted control to the Democrats. (Maloney lost his seat in a congressional redistricting soon after the initial vote.)

But even for those who have now found their dire warnings about the invasion corroborated — in the obituaries of fallen troops, the soaring cost of occupation, the insecure future of those who have returned to U.S. shores — there is little solace as the fifth anniversary of the war approaches.

“As it is, we have a wolf by the ears,” said Larson, D-1st District, paraphrasing a proverb used by Thomas Jefferson to describe the nation's long internal debate about human slavery. “But we can neither hold him nor safely let him go. I think we have the wolf by the ears now.”

For Simmons, “Americans have always been ambivalent about war.”

“In the Revolutionary War you had one-third supporting the revolution, one-third supporting the king and one-third waiting to see what was going to happen,” Simmons said in a cell phone interview during a break from his new job advocating state business interests.

The Civil War literally divided households and families, Simmons noted. The legendary national mobilization of the Second World War era has obscured the isolationist dissent at the time of people like Charles Lindbergh and groups like America First.

Five years into the country's war in Iraq, the 2nd District's former Republican congressman knows something about that ambivalence — from his own misgivings about that vote for war, to the voters' eventual rejection of many who abetted it.

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But other than Shays, the only remaining Republican in Connecticut's delegation, Lieberman is alone in thinking the course has been corrected by the current “surge” of troops into Baghdad, an escalation that is already beginning to reverse itself. Instead, other members of the state delegation are consumed with negotiating a way toward withdrawal, a nettlesome question that tends to crowd out the debate about how so many members of both parties went along with the resolution to move toward war.

“There's not a debate about whether we're going to withdraw, the question is when and how,” said Rep. Chris Murphy, D-5th District, who defeated Johnson in 2006, a stunning upset of the veteran congresswoman. “I leave the logistics of withdrawal up to the military. But I see no benefit to waiting another five years, during which time there's no reason to believe the Iraqis will become any more able and ready to take control of their country.”

Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, who narrowly defeated Simmons in 2006, is equally adamant on the subject of what supporters call “redeployment” of U.S. troops — withdrawal of combat troops to small bases in the region, and eventually homeward, forcing Iraq's sovereign government to take greater account for its own security.

During a recent hearing of the House Armed Services Committee, Courtney sharply criticized the Maliki government's recent welcoming of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, telling Adm. William J. Fallon, the U.S. commander in the Middle East, that it was an affront to the troops that have helped shore up the Iraqi leader's tenuous reign, and as good a sign as any that Americans should begin cutting their military support for the country.

“The contrast of George Bush having to come in under cover of night, under heavy security ... versus Ahmadinejad in an open, relatively free-wheeling visit, with light security, and standing there and bashing the U.S., to me that speaks volumes about what the real view of the U.S. is in Iraq right now,” Courtney said in an interview last week.

Shays and Lieberman disagree.

“The Iraqis,” said Shays, before briefly threatening to end the interview on the subject, “are starting to like us, and that's a fact.”

The congressman grew animated when asked if that was not an anecdotal judgment, explaining that he had gauged the opinion of Iraqis by going “outside the umbrella of the military” on his frequent visits to the country.

“If Iraq is in a better place and it functions as a democracy and it is not encouraging the export of terrorism ... it doesn't mean it was worth a trillion dollars and 4,500 lives,” Shays said. “It doesn't mean that.”

But to Shays, that conclusion also does not justify a hasty withdrawal that could plunge the country into chaos.

“I know that I voted correctly to go in and get Saddam out of Kuwait” in 1991, Shays said. “I know that was the right vote. And, you know, some of the delegation voted wrong. I believe that my vote to go into Iraq turned out to be the wrong vote. I think that to then leave, before we have replaced their army, their police and their border patrol and (allowed) them to restore some sense of stability, would be a colossal mistake.”

But the current strategy, said Dodd, who provided only a written statement in response to interview requests, is no strategy at all.

“We're spending more than $12 billion a month in Iraq,” Dodd said. “We spend more every day in Iraq than we do for the entire year for the Peace Corps. It is time to develop a responsible and comprehensive strategy for how to move forward in Iraq and address our other pressing national security concerns around the world.”

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