By Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 26, 2007
CHICAGO When Rep. Jan Schakowsky made her first trip to Iraq this month, the outspoken antiwar liberal resolved to keep her opinions to herself. "I would listen and learn," she decided.
At times that proved a challenge, as when Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih told her congressional delegation, "There's not going to be political reconciliation by this September; there's not going to be political reconciliation by next September." Schakowsky gulped -- wasn't that the whole idea of President Bush's troop increase, to buy time for that political progress?
But the real test came over a lunch with Gen. David H. Petraeus, who used charts and a laser pointer to show how security conditions were gradually improving -- evidence, he argued, that the troop increase is doing some good.
Still, the U.S. commander cautioned, it could take another decade before real stability is at hand. Schakowsky gasped. "I come from an environment where people talk nine to 10 months," she said, referring to the time frame for withdrawal that many Democrats are advocating. "And there he was, talking nine to 10 years."
The trip gave Schakowsky a good look at the challenge that Democrats face next month, when Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker travel to Washington to testify before Congress, presumably with similar charts and arguments that the U.S. military is making strides in Iraq, and that withdrawal dates would be reckless and wrong.
The lack of political progress among Iraq's rival factions and Petraeus's estimate of the time needed to stabilize the nation left Schakowsky all the more convinced that Democrats must force Bush to begin bringing troops home.
"This is not the structure that's going to say, 'Why? Why are we here? What are we really accomplishing here?' The mission is to take down the bad guys, to establish order," she said of her sessions with Petraeus and other military leaders. The meetings "made me feel more determined that the policy is going to have to be set in Washington, that the Congress is going to have to exert its will here to end this war."
The Illinois Democrat recounted her trip from a table in the front window of the Venus Cafe, an Iraqi restaurant not far from her home on Chicago's North Side. A line was forming in the next room -- local Iraqi Christians, many of whom have relatives displaced by the war, were eager for their own debriefing.
A co-founder of the House Out of Iraq Caucus, Schakowsky saw only fleeting glimpses of Iraqis' day-to-day life during her one-day trip. The few times she ventured out of the Green Zone, she was in a helicopter or a speeding convoy, soldiers hanging out of the windows with machine guns, obscuring the view. She heard about dire power and water shortages, yet saw nothing firsthand.
But the military presentations left her stunned. Schakowsky said she jotted down Petraeus's words in a small white notebook she had brought along to record her impressions. Her neat, looping handwriting filled page after page, and she flipped through to find the Petraeus section. " 'We will be in Iraq in some way for nine to 10 years,' " Schakowsky read carefully. She had added her own translation: "Keep the train running for a few months, and then stretch it out. Just enough progress to justify more time."
"I felt that was a stretch and really part of a PR strategy -- just like the PR strategy that initially led up to the war in the first place," Schakowsky said. Petraeus, she said, "acknowledged that if the policymakers decide that we need to withdraw, that, you know, that's what he would have to do. But he felt that in order to win, we'd have to be there nine or 10 years."
As a war opponent, Schakowsky has always taken extra care to do her homework, and she can recite facts and figures on the conflict with agility. But after Democrats won control of the House, Schakowsky -- a member of the leadership -- joined the intelligence committee and found herself squirming when people asked how many times she had visited Iraq. None, she had to confess. So when she learned of a trip that House Armed Services Committee members had scheduled for the August recess, she invited herself along, becoming one of about two dozen members of Congress to travel to Iraq this month.
Seated at the Venus, her white notebook in front of her, Schakowsky recounted some of the day's more vivid images. The irony of having to wear body armor to a meeting of Sunni and Shiite leaders to discuss their progress in working together. The creepy feeling when she examined the improvised explosive devices used to devastating effect against U.S. soldiers, from crude models activated by cellphones to sophisticated Iranian designs that Schakowsky described as "sleek copper bowls." The blasts of a simulated raid by Iraqi soldiers on a terrorism suspect's house. And the stifling heat that felt "like a hair dryer on the back of your neck."
She lost track of all the PowerPoint presentations that she and her colleagues sat through -- it was either five or six. "You would get these organizational charts that were all acronyms -- I mean like, 30 of them," Schakowsky recalled with a laugh. "And the danger of asking a question about them is it would add another 10 minutes" to the presentation.
One pleasant surprise was how much Schakowsky enjoyed the company of her Republican colleagues, including Reps. Phil Gingrey of Georgia, Jeff Miller of Florida and Thelma Drake of Virginia. They kidded each other, "We're going to all be best friends until the press releases come out."
And that's more or less how it unfolded. After the group returned from the trip, which also included visits to Pakistan and Afghanistan, Schakowsky and Gingrey offered opposite assessments during an appearance on Fox News. Drake's local newspaper in Newport News, the Daily Press, wrote an article about the contrast headlined "Drake, Democrats Tour Different Iraqs."
But it wasn't just Republicans who came away impressed after visiting Iraq. Rep. Brian Baird (D-Wash.) announced that he will no longer support a timetable for withdrawal, warning of a "potentially catastrophic effect" on the region.
Schakowsky acknowledged that the military's presentation may have been effective. "If you took the briefings at their face value, without context, without bringing anything to it -- clearly they were trying to present that positive spin, and that's what [other lawmakers] took away from it."
Schakowsky said she asked U.S. officials about the consequences of withdrawal, and she conceded that "they painted a very dire picture." She looked again through her notebook for a Petraeus quote. "He said: 'If you don't like the humanitarian crisis, the refugees and the internally displaced people, you can't draw down. If you are concerned about these people, the humanitarian crisis, you should be for our staying here.' "
In the next room, her Iraqi Christian constituents were still waiting. Schakowsky said she didn't respond to Petraeus; she let the comment drift by. "I was not arguing," she said. "I wanted to see what his take was."