Candidate Agonistes And Iraq
The headline Thursday morning from Iraq read: "Nearly 100 Killed in Baghdad During 24 Brutal Hours." That's what faced embattled Republican Rep. Chris Shays of Connecticut -- along with a plate of lukewarm scrambled eggs and a tableful of reporters at a press breakfast sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor.
Shays waved away the breakfast plate, but he had a harder time dismissing his own doubts about what he terms "the noble mission" that brought the United States to Iraq.
By the end of an hour, it was clear to everyone that the war has reduced this 60-year-old, nine-term veteran of the House to a complete head case -- consumed by the convoluted efforts to square the circle of his own conflicting impulses.
Shays's symptoms are important, because he is no ordinary member of Congress. He has made 14 trips to Iraq in the past three years as chairman of a subcommittee on national security -- more, he says, than any other legislator.
He made news in August by saying that, as a longtime supporter of the war, he thought it was time to tell the Iraqi government that unless it acted promptly to unify the country, U.S. forces would have no choice but to withdraw.
What emerged at breakfast was a far more nuanced -- and tortured -- set of views and a self-absorbed soliloquy that may reveal what is going on inside the heads of other politicians less prone than Shays to treat a breakfast for reporters as a session on the psychiatrist's couch.
Shays brought a bundle of contradictions to the Iraq issue. A conscientious objector during the Vietnam War, he had to wrestle with his conscience and, he said, his religious faith as a Christian Scientist before he could support President George H.W. Bush's decision to use force to repel Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait.
But he had no qualms about the current president's decision to invade Iraq, because he believed Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. And even now he expresses scorn for those who say they regret their votes to authorize this war because the weapons were not there. "I would never back away from my vote," he said.
On the other hand . . . .
"The president has no credibility," Shays said, because of that intelligence blunder and because management of the war has been awful. Notable as he found the Iraqis' political achievement in writing and ratifying a constitution and electing a government in Baghdad, he said: "Since January, there has been no progress" toward reconciling Shiite-Sunni conflicts and transferring the responsibility for policing the country to the growing army of Iraqis.
Shays said he has become skeptical that the Shiite-dominated government on which the administration has placed its reliance will ever take the necessary steps -- unless the United States makes them a condition for its remaining.
On the other hand . . . .
It would be "immoral," Shays says, simply to set a date or a timetable for withdrawal, as Ned Lamont, who won the Democratic Senate nomination in Connecticut over Sen. Joseph Lieberman, has suggested. Rather, Shays said, withdrawal should be conditioned on the Iraqis reaching certain specified troop levels, after which every new Iraqi soldier or police officer would mean another American could come home, until only a residual force was left.
Shays's position now is almost identical to that of his Democratic challenger, Diane Farrell, who has continued to attack President Bush's policies and fault Shays and the Republican Congress for "lax oversight" of the war.
But Shays says that, unlike his critics, he believes fervently that the threat of Islamic terrorism is real and growing and that the president's second inaugural speech, calling for a worldwide offensive for democracy, represents a "historic" redefinition of American purpose.
Shays stopped off at Scotland Yard on his way home from Iraq last month, and what he learned from the British alarmed him: Al-Qaeda cells with technology more advanced than those arrested in August for planning to blow up airplanes on transatlantic flights are probably operating today. He is convinced that we will be attacked some day with chemical, biological and possibly nuclear weapons. He feels like a lonely Paul Revere, trying to warn people to take precautions.
But ultimately, he acknowledged, "my only concern is my own credibility." It is terribly important to Shays that his agonizing over Iraq not be confused with any worry about reelection. His race is very much in doubt, but he wants everyone to know that "if Iraq costs me election," it will not bother him. He just wants his constituents to know he cares.