Going Deep with Rep. Jim Ramstad and His Critics on the Iraq War

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A lengthy post and two audio clips illuminate Ramstad’s position and peace advocates’ criticism.

Peace groups have been targeting Congressman Jim Ramstad for special attention this summer, believing that the famously moderate ninth-term Republican can be brought over from pro-war to anti-war.

Ramstad believes the choices in Iraq are often oversimplified and that there is a middle path. See if he can convince you.

The plan of this post is to give Ramstad all the space he needs to explain his current thinking on Iraq at a level of detail you will not see in the mainstream media, to scrutinize the details of his position and to give the peaceniks their say as well. There’s also a link at the bottom to the audio of my interview with Ramstad.

But, knowing that this will be a long post, here’s a quick summary of what it will say:

Ramstad is a Baker-Hamilton man. He believes too many discussions of the issue are boiled down to stay-the-course or pull-out-now, and neither of those options is wise. He supports a bill that he says would impose the Baker-Hamilton plan and back it up with tough benchmarks. He overstates the toughness of that bill, however. It really just recommends the eight-month-old Baker-Hamilton plan and does not contain language that would force any action at all.

Bush has already praised the Baker-Hamilton plan but not adopted it. The peaceniks say Ramstad is using Baker-Hamilton for political cover while continuing to support Bush.

Ramstad will not vote for any legislation that has deadlines and quotas for troop withdrawals. He sounds like he has drawn a firm line against this in principle. He defers to the commander-in-chief and the commanders in the field for that level of military management. The peaceniks say that if you’re not willing to vote for withdrawal deadlines, you are supporting endless war.

Ramstad, whose suburban 3rd Congressional District loops south, west and north around Minneapolis (click on the image at right above for details) says everything now awaits the September report of Gen. David Gen. David PetraeusPetraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker. He believes this report will produce big changes in U.S. policy and in the position of many members of Congress. He implies that he may change his position but won’t specify.

Background

Ramstad voted for the 2002 resolution authorizing the war. He says, given what he knew at the time, it was the only vote he could cast. but if Congress had known then that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the resolution would, appropriately, never have come to a vote.

But as the situation now stands, he agrees with Bush that:

“We can’t just cut and run from Iraq and let terrorists, be they Al Qaida or terrorists from Iran or wherever, occupy what would be a terrible power void, have those oil resources, use that as a safe haven from which to develop nuclear weapons and train terrorists to attack us. I don’t think that’s hyperbole on the part of the president. I really believe that that could happen if we just were to cut and run. That’s why I don’t favor cut and run.”

Referring to protesters who have been appearing at his public events wearing orange T-Shirts that read: “Jim Ramstad, End the War,” Ramstad said:

“I can’t agree with my friends in the orange t-shirts. A complete pullout would invite genocide, regional war, and a catastrophic setback to our national security.”

On the other hand, he believes that stay-the-course is not an option for several reasons, namely:

* “The Pentagon cannot sustain the current level of forces in Iraq beyond next April without stretching to the breaking point our Army and Marine Corps, and

* “Iraqi political reconciliation is not happening. It’s not happening. And of course That’s what the surge is based on (referring to the belief that the temporary increase in U.S. troops would provide space for the Iraqi Parliament to take steps to reconcile the ethnosectarian tensions). And that’s not happening.”

So leaving is not an option, nor is continuing with the current course.

Ramstad’s other votes

With one exception, Ramstad has voted with President Bush on all the Iraq war issues. The exception was early this year when he voted against the troop surge. He said he cast that vote because Gen. George Casey, the top commander in Iraq, opposed the surge and told Congress that he had polled the divisional commanders and none of them supported it. Ramstad says decisions on how many troops are needed and how much time should be given to accomplish a military mission should be made by the commanders, that the military doesn’t need “535 commanders in chief,” and that Congress should not “micromanage” a war.

There is a problem here. Gen. Petraeus, the new top commander who replaced Casey, is the architect of the surge. Ramstad acknowledges that Casey was forced out because of his opposition to the surge, which was the policy President Bush wanted. Since the president can change the commanders in the field, deferring to the judgment of the field commanders means deferring to the president.

Ramstad acknowledged this problem in our interview. He spoke highly of Petraeus and plans to attach great weight to his recommendations in September.

Baker-Hamilton

Before our recorded interview, I talked to Ramstad at the Humphrey Institute as he prepared to give a talk Tuesday. Ramstad said that these are unpleasant times in Washington and that Iraq is the cause. When I asked for his current position, he went straight for Baker-Hamilton, aka The Iraq Study Group, the bipartisan 10-member commission that made its recommendations last December.

He praised the eminence of the members of the group, hailed their recommendations as the most “rational, sensible, viable” way forward that would allow the United States to fulfill its mission in Iraq and find the best exit strategy. He rued that Bush had “missed a great opportunity” by not getting behind this report, with its bipartisan bona fides and its balanced, pragmatic approach.

Baker-Hamilton recommended that:

* U.S. troops should be promptly withdrawn from the middle of the sectarian civil war in Baghdad and replaced by Iraqi troops as soon as they can be made ready;

* A significant number of U.S. troops should remain in Iraq indefinitely to continue training Iraqis, to protect key U.S. assets, and to engage in specific special forces missions against Al Qaida;

* The United States make a large new diplomatic push to get regional and international help to pacify Iraq; and

* Further U.S. political and economic aid to the government of Iraq be conditioned on the government taking constitutional, legislative and electoral steps to promote reconciliation among the main population groups.

* Baker-Hamilton set April of 2008 as a target date for beginning to withdraw U.S. troops.

HR 2574

Ramstad is one of 60 co-sponsors (34 Republicans and 26 Democrats; Minnesota’s other raging moderate, Democrat Collin Peterson is also on there) of HR 2574, titled: To implement the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group.”

Ramstad believes that if this bill came to a vote, it would pass with bipartisan majorities in both houses. He subscribes enthusiastically to the argument made in a July 21 Washington Post editorial headlined “The Phony Debate,” which argued that Baker-Hamilton represented an emerging bipartisan consensus in Congress and that even Bush supports the idea of getting the U.S. troops out of the civil war zones and changing the mission along the lines Baker-Hamilton suggested.

The Post piece blames Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and Ramstad does too, for preventing the idea from coming to a vote because he does not want the public to know that there is a middle ground that most members of Congress support.

The Post editorial did not address the question of why, if Bush supports the plan, it has not already been implemented.

In my interview with him, Ramstad overstated the mandatory nature of the bill he supports. I asked him if the bill would “mandate” that the president implement the Baker-Hamilton plan. He said the bill would “codify them, make them law, that’s right.”

In fact, for most of the Baker-Hamilton recommendations, including the key goal of moving U.S. troops out of the middle of the sectarian fighting, HR2574 summarizes the points and says repeatedly that “it is the sense of Congress” that Bush should follow them. That’s advice, not a mandate.

When I asked Ramstad why Bush would accept the Baker-Hamilton recommendations now, he replied, using a reference to the Post editorial, that Bush already agrees with the recommendations. But, like the Post piece, Ramstad didn’t explain why, if Bush agrees them, they are not already administration policy.

Unlike the Baker-Hamilton commission, (which set April 1, 2008, as a goal for beginning to withdraw U.S. troops), HR2574does not mention even a target date. Ramstad said that since the Baker-Hamiltonians chose their goal eight months ago, he would be interested in their updated input on what should be the target date now.

Benchmarks

While Ramstad blames Reid for blocking progress on Baker-Hamilton, he says he agrees with Reid that the benchmarks for Iraqi political progress contained in current law are toothless. He said he favors benchmarks with teeth (at the Humphrey Institute talk, Ramstad tripped good-naturedly over his tongue and said more than once that he favors “teethmarks”). He said HR 2574 contained benchmarks with teeth.

“This is a lot stronger. This says reduce American financial and military aid to the Iraqi government should it fail to meet benchmarks. This is more than advisory. This is policy. This is a quid pro quo for failing to meet the benchmarks. There’s got to be some sanctions or it’s not going to happen.”

This also overstated the strength of HR 2574. Unlike most of the bill, the section on benchmarks does not simply say that Congress recommends that U.S. military and economic aid to Iraq be reduced if the government fails to make progress on political reconciliation. It says (if you look at the bill itself, this is Section 11):

“It shall (emphasis added) be the policy of the United States to condition continued United States political, military and economic support for Iraq upon the demonstration by the Government of Iraq of sufficient political will and the making of substantial progress toward achieving the milestones described in subsection (b).”

But nothing in the bill specifies what level of progress by what date is necessary to avoid a cut in aid, nor what level of cut might meet what failure to meet what benchmark.

Given the catastrophic consequences Ramstad foresees if the Iraq mission collapses, and the amount the U.S. plan has riding on the performance of the Iraqi government, I asked Ramstad if he would really want Bush to cut off aid if it might hasten the collapse of the government. He replied:

“That’s a real dilemma. I think there has to be some discretion. Let me answer it that way.”

As far as I can tell, that means President Bush is authorized to threaten to reduce aid (which he is already doing) but it’s up to him whether to do it and it might be very unwise to follow through.

An anti-war reaction

Meet Kevin Fahey, Minnesota field director for Iraq Summer, which is part of a larger coalition called Americans Against Escalation in Iraq. His group and its allies have been organizing demonstrations at Ramstad’s town meetings and other public appearances during the summer break. I ran through my understanding of Ramstad’s Iraq position with Fahey and asked for his reaction.

“Congressman Ramstad authorized us to go into the war. Maybe he didn’t realize how difficult it is to stop a war. But there are two alternatives now and the debate is over with the American people on which alternative they want.

There’s voting with Bush and his endless war. And there’s voting to end the war.”

He called Ramstad’s effort to find a middle path “a phony stall” that “sounds a lot like `stay the course’ to me.”

Fahey likewise had no patience for Ramstad’s opposition to setting a deadline for troop withdrawal.

“‘I will not vote for a deadline’ means `I will not vote to end this war.’ We’ve heard this stuff before. He has yet to cast a vote to end the war.”

Fahey said his coalition is “calling for a responsible end to this war. We’re not backing a specific bill. Our organization simply says: Start voting against the president and start voting with the people to end this war.”

He was also dismissive of the Baker-Hamilton approach. It’s been around for almost a year; Bush already rejected it; it doesn’t seek to end the war, only adjusts the strategy; and Ramstad, who says he doesn’t want Congress to micromanage, wants to impose a new strategy, which means he does want Congress to micromanage, Fahey said.

Fahey, a Vietnam vet, reacted mockingly to the notion that Iraqi troops would soon be able to take over for U.S. troops in Baghdad, which is the key first part of the Baker-Hamilton plan. U.S. troops have been training Iraqi troops for years now, he said. “When I went to basic training, I had eight weeks to get ready. Then I got sent to Vietnam.”

Waiting for Petraeus

At the Humphrey event, Ramstad said “everything now is about Sept. 15,” when Petraeus and Crocker are to deliver their assessment. “There’s gonna be some changing,” he said.

In our taped interview, I pressed him further on that. He said Petraeus can’t suggest that the surge continue, because there aren’t enough troops to sustain that approach, so “there’s going to be a shift in strategy. I don’t think it’s going to be more of the same.”

Petraeus has been telling reporters that by next summer there will be fewer U.S. troops in Iraq than the current all-time high of 160,000, but that a hasty drawdown will jeopardize the gains the surge has achieved so far.

I said that most of the reporting out of Washington and Iraq is that the September report will conclude that the surge is getting results, but more time is needed. Ramstad replied:

“Then the question becomes, the big question becomes, will Congress provide more time?… Colleagues who have been strongly supportive of the president’s policy are looking for a more middle-ground approach in Iraq, realizing the limitations that we’re facing over there, that reconciliation is not happening, that we can’t sustain the current level of forces past April, recognizing the political realities at home.”

I asked him what he will do in September if the request is for more time. Ramstad:

“I’m not gonna say today based on a hypothetical. That’s a while away. I’m gonna wait until September.”

If you would like to hear the interview itself, it comes in two pieces below. We were disconnected a few minutes into the call.

The audio of the first three minutes of the interview are on this link.

The second segment, 16 minutes, is here.