Bill Steigerwald Bill Steigerwald, 1/20/2006 [Archive]

John Murtha Bush should listen more

John Murtha: Bush should listen more

Since last fall, when he set off a national debate by calling for an immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, Pennsylvania Congressman Jack Murtha has been making news. Last Sunday on "60 Minutes," the Johnstown, Pa., Democrat predicted most U.S. troops would be out of Iraq by year's end. Murtha, a former Marine who fought in Korea and Vietnam, is one of the best friends the military has in Congress. I talked to him Jan.19 by telephone from his office in Washington:

Q: Were you too optimistic or too fooled or too politically cowed by the president's popularity to perceive the long-run problems of invading Iraq in 2003?

A: If you remember, I led the fight to go to war in 1991. I spoke on the floor. I worked for votes. President Bush called me right after the vote and told me how much he appreciated it. This time it was much more difficult for me. I listened to the rhetoric. I looked at the intelligence. I believed there were weapons of mass destruction. I didn't think there was a nuclear connection and I didn't think there was an al-Qaida connection, but I did think there were biological weapons. But in the back of my mind the thing that worried me the most was what President Bush had said in 1993. He said, 'I will not go into Iraq because I believe I'd have to reconstruct and occupy it and we shouldn't be nation building."

But I thought we (Congress) were giving the present President Bush a tool, a club, to get Saddam under control. When you look back at what he said in 2000 when he ran, he said, 'We shouldn't be in nation-building. We should have a humble foreign policy." What's been frustrating to me is this is open-ended. There's no end in sight, according to their policy. And they have no clear position of victory. They say 'victory or defeat.' Well, that's not a clear position. When you think this has been going on into its fourth year, that's longer than the Korean War. It's time to change direction. The public knows this. Some people don't agree with me, but as a whole most of the people believe it is time to either redirect ourselves or redeploy our troops. I think 25,000 or 30,000 in that region would be plenty.

Q: What about Iran? The president says because it is developing uranium enrichment facilities it poses "a grave threat to the security of the world.'Are we starting all over again?

A:I think this administration has matured substantially in that regard. I think they will work with the world because they are finally recognizing that we actually don't have the military capability of doing anything except air strikes right now. We're not even sure of our intelligence. We're not sure where these Iranian nuclear facilities are. We have some time, though. This is not something that is imminent. We don't have to worry tomorrow about it, but we do have to try to work with the rest of the world. I look at Iran as a destabilizing force in the Middle East for a long time. I'm always worried about Iran.I'm worried that they are the big guys on the block. I used to worry that they'd influence Iraq, but now I've come to the conclusion that the Iraqis don't like anybody.

Q: Are you at all uncomfortable being held up as the anti-war congressmen?

A: I think I waited too long. I have an obligation to speak out for the troops. I don't feel a bit uncomfortable. I feel that it is my obligation as a member of Congress and as a person who does know the military who's worked his entire career to make sure the military has everything it needs. I don't feel bad about it at all. I feel dedicated and actually energized every time I go some place and people come to me and say how much they appreciate me speaking out.

Q: Have you yourself learned any one big important lesson from Iraq in terms of deploying American power around the world?

A: I'll tell you what I've learned: The American military can't do everything.I've learned that nation-building is not something they can accomplish well if there is an insurgency. ... In this kind of a war the key is to win the hearts and minds, and we've lost the hearts and minds, obviously, from the election results and the polls we see.

But the biggest thing is the military is marvelous at what they do. There are no more dedicated people as long as they have a clear mission and an exit strategy and have enough people to do it. But when you give them a mission that is not clear, then it is much more difficult.

Q: Then politicians need to know a little bit more about the limitations of military force? Not to put words in your mouth, Congressman.

A:No. I'll tell you what I think happened: When we went into the '91 Iraq war, the Vietnam War hung over us. President Bush Ihad a group of us up to the White House. He talked to us. We listened to him. We made suggestions to him about what had to be done. But we also said this thing can't last more than six months, because if it does it will wear out the American people. President Bush I doesn't get enough credit for how he organized that Gulf War. He got the international community to pay for it. President Bush I was one of the best foreign policy presidents I think we've ever had. I didn't necessarily agree with his domestic policy, but he recognized the limitation of military power.

Q: Do you have any advice for the current President Bush?

A: I think he had 19 former secretaries of state and secretaries of defense over there (to the White House) and they were only there for 42 minutes. And his concluding remarks were something like, 'Well, I don't agree with most of the advice I got.' Well, that's not what I call consultation. You really need to listen to people. You need not make up your mind before. This difference in this president, who I believe is isolated, is that he doesn't listen to enough people.

Bill Steigerwald is a columnist at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. E-mail Bill at © Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, All Rights Reserved.

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