By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 28, 2007
Virginia Sen. John W. Warner's words betray the guilt he still carries about the Vietnam War and help explain why this pillar of the Republican establishment is leading a bipartisan revolt against the war plans of a president in his own party.
"I regret that I was not more outspoken" during the Vietnam War, the former Navy secretary said in an interview in his Capitol Hill office. "The Army generals would come in, 'Just send in another five or ten thousand.' You know, month after month. Another ten or fifteen thousand. They thought they could win it. We kept surging in those years. It didn't work."
Is that a lesson for what's going on in Iraq?
"Well, you don't forget something like that," he answers. There is a long pause, he closes his eyes and his voice gets softer. "No. You don't forget those things."
More than 30 years after Vietnam, Warner is once again watching as generals propose additional troops. But this time, he's not staying silent. In a rebuke to President Bush, Warner is leading an effort to have the U.S. Senate declare a lack of confidence in the administration's plans to send 21,500 additional soldiers into the Iraqi war zone.
White House officials were taken aback by the move, which is striking because of Warner's stature, both in the Republican Party and as one of the country's most ardent supporters of the military. But Warner, who once was married to Elizabeth Taylor, has an almost mythic popularity, which has made it impossible for Bush allies to demonize him on the issue.
The Senate will vote on his resolution as early as this week, along with a competing one drafted by Sens. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) and Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.). There is little doubt that a majority of senators will vote their disapproval of Bush's latest plans for Iraq, further isolating the president from the people who once supported the war -- people such as Warner.
Throughout a career that might be winding down -- the 80-year-old senator won't say whether he will run for a sixth term next year -- Warner has been a Republican icon and a fierce defender of the military. He voted to go to war in 2003, and from his perch as chairman of the Armed Services Committee until this year, he was a frequent defender of the president.
But to GOP loyalists, Warner is also a more-than-occasional irritant who seems willing to buck the party line with little regard for the political consequences to his Republican colleagues.
In 1994, he campaigned against his party's nominee to become the junior senator from Virginia, Oliver North. That prompted a primary challenge when he sought reelection two years later. In 2004, he endorsed higher taxes in Virginia and later held hearings on the abuses in the Abu Ghraib prison. In 2005, he battled Bush over Supreme Court justices and the use of torture in U.S. terrorist prison camps.
Now he's at it again, delivering a new affront to Bush and offering nothing but a shrug when asked if he worries about that.
"I gotta tell you, I've gotten to that wonderful age in life -- I don't worry," he said. "If you do what in your heart you feel is right, go to sleep. Don't worry. I go to sleep and I don't worry."His Biggest Sin
The thing that makes John Warner different from most mavericks is that it's never clear when the next affront will come.
He can go for weeks or months or even years as a revered member of the Republican family. A former Marine who led the Navy before his election to the Senate 28 years ago, Warner even looks the part of the courtly, white-haired GOP lawmaker from the South.
But every now and then, it seems, the urge strikes him.
"Obviously, when you're in the position of the White House or the party chairman, your job is much easier if everybody is just saying yes all the time," said Ed Gillespie, who as chairman of the National Republican Committee battled Warner on nominations to the Supreme Court.
It was Gillespie's job to shepherd the court nominees through Congress, a task made more difficult by Warner's alliance with 13 other moderate GOP senators. But Gillespie is a fan of Warner's nonetheless.
"John Warner understands full well that he is elected to the U.S. Senate, which is a separate and equal branch of government," said Gillespie, who has since become chairman of the Republican Party of Virginia.
Warner's biggest sin, in the eyes of conservative Republicans, was his opposition to North, who was seen as an unadulterated champion for the party's right wing. Warner called North "unfit" for office because of his role in the Iran-contra arms scandal.
Warner not only opposed North's candidacy, he recruited an independent challenger -- former Republican attorney general J. Marshall Coleman -- who helped give the race to then-incumbent Sen. Charles S. Robb (D). Infuriated, Virginia conservatives persuaded former president Ronald Reagan's budget director to challenge Warner in the 1996 Republican primary.
Warner won easily and in the process cemented what had been an evolving reputation as a moderate, independent politician.
"[We] live in a great state of people of common sense, of wisdom, and they are fair-minded," Warner said after defeating James C. Miller III in the primary.A Profound Impact
To anyone paying attention, it has been clear for months that Warner's support for the Iraq war has been wavering.
In October, just before the midterm elections, he returned home from a trip to Iraq and warned that the war effort was "drifting sideways." The comment was perfectly crafted for Warner: not too impertinent on its face but striking nonetheless.
Now he's gone further, sketching out his latest challenge to Bush during a late-night meeting last week with two colleagues in an ornate office at the back of the U.S. Senate chamber.
It is, he said, an attempt to send the same message offered by Hagel and Biden but without what he calls an overly harsh tone. Although it begins by respecting "the Constitutional authorities given a President," its bottom line is just as direct:
"The Senate disagrees with the plan to augment our forces by 21,500, and urges the President instead to consider all options and alternatives," the Warner resolution reads. He unveiled his draft a day before Bush's State of the Union speech.
"His support for a redeployment resolution -- and his opposition to the surge policy -- is very important," said U.S. Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.), a longtime friend. "It's going to have a very profound impact on the debate."
Warner's resolution gives some of his Republican colleagues a politically safe position to take on a war that is increasingly unpopular with the American public. "When John Warner decides that these issues have seriousness . . . there are a number of people who come with him," said Warner's new Virginia colleague, Sen. James Webb (D).
But to conservatives, the effort is nothing but folly.
William Kristol, founder of the Weekly Standard, calls both resolutions "wrong, foolish and irresponsible."
Kristol is careful to say of Warner that "I think he's sincere." But he said the effect of the resolution passing will be to weaken Army Lt. Gen. David H. Petraeus, who was confirmed Friday as the top U.S. commander in Iraq and will implement Bush's surge.
"John Warner can be a patriot and still do something foolish that hurts our foreign policy," Kristol said.Support for Soldiers
Few criticisms aimed at Warner seem to have much effect on him these days.
But one has.
At an Armed Services hearing last week, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) prompted Petraeus to express concern about the passage of a Senate resolution.
"A resolution -- a Senate-passed resolution of disapproval for this new strategy in Iraq -- would give the enemy some encouragement, some feeling that, well, some clear expression that the American people are divided?" Lieberman asked.
"That's correct, sir," Petraeus replied.
When it was Warner's turn to speak, he was clearly upset. He called the exchange "personal" for him and said forcefully that support for the resolution should never be taken as a lack of support for soldiers in the field.
"We're not a division here of patriots who support the troops and those who are making statements and working on resolutions that could be translated as aiding and abetting the enemy," Warner told Petraeus and his colleagues. "I hope that this colloquy has not trapped you into some responses that you might later regret."
A few days later, in his office, Warner made it clear that he's unwilling to give in.
"Those who say we're not doing the right thing, tell me, what is the obligation of the Senate?" he asked. "Do nothing?"