The Anguished Moderate | Olympia Snowe

By Shailagh Murray and Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, July 15, 2007

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was on the phone, pleading for more time.

It was Tuesday morning, and Sen. Olympia J. Snowe was closer than she ever had been to breaking with President Bush over the Iraq war. For weeks, the Maine Republican had been hesitating, caught between a war she had concluded was a lost cause and a Democratic alternative insisting on a firm deadline for a troop withdrawal that her party opposed.

The night before, she had joined Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) on a television program and gone further on Iraq than she ever had in public. It was time, she had said, to move to a binding date for the troops to leave. Reed, sensing an opportunity, had lobbied hard when they talked after the show. He is co-sponsor of the Democratic amendment calling for all combat troops to be home by April, and he would buttonhole Snowe repeatedly over the next 48 hours.

By the time Rice called Snowe in her spacious Russell Senate Building office the next morning, it was clear that Snowe was close to bolting. During the phone call, Snowe did the talking.

"I told her that it was very disturbing, the lack of progress on the part of the Iraqi government to achieve its political agenda, the increasing violence, the question of the true intentions of Prime Minister [Nouri al-]Maliki as to whether or not he's attempting to consolidate his own Shia majority and consolidate power rather than fulfilling an agenda for uniting Iraq," Snowe recalled of her talk with Rice.

Rice argued that U.S. troops were having successes and pleaded for Snowe to wait at least until September, when Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, would deliver a full report on the political and military conditions there. At the end of the call, Snowe hedged. "I hadn't made up my mind definitively," she said.

But that didn't last long. Within hours, at a meeting in the office of Senate Minority Whip Trent Lott (R-Miss.), she told her close friend that she was inclined to support Reed's withdrawal timetable. "I don't think Trent Lott was surprised," she said. Snowe, after all, has a long history of bucking her leadership.

They walked together into the weekly GOP lunch with Vice President Cheney. In previous luncheons, Snowe was never shy about speaking up about the war. But this day, she sat silently. Hearing the same administration talk about staying the course, waiting for September, she thought, "Why wait until September to respond to what you know now?"

After the lunch, Snowe returned to her office to find several messages from Reed. The ensuing phone calls began hours of deeper discussion on his language and intentions.

What did he mean when he said troops would remain in Iraq to combat terrorism, train Iraqi security forces and protect U.S. interests? Could that include guarding the territorial integrity of the struggling state? She liked his answers. She had yet to see the actual language of Reed's amendment, co-sponsored by Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl M. Levin (Mich.). By Tuesday evening, her chief of staff called his counterpart in Levin's office to get a copy of the amendment. Snowe pored over it and reread portions of the Iraq Study Group's report.

And then she gathered her staff members to say that she had decided to embrace binding legislation to withdraw combat troops.

The next morning, she phoned Lott to let him know her announcement was coming. Just past 11 a.m., it went out. She had signed on with Reed, becoming the second Republican senator to subscribe to the Democrats' consensus view of how to end the war. Nebraska Republican Chuck Hagel made the same leap that day, though the two did not talk in advance to plan their announcements.

"We have to react to what the events are right now," Snowe said. "And right now is this: The Iraqi government essentially has a month and a half left until the General Petraeus report, so what message do you want to send? Do you want to maximize the opportunity now to send the message to them, 'This is exactly what's going to happen. . . . We're charting a different course militarily, so they'd better chart a different one politically'?"

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company