By Dana Milbank
Friday, October 26, 2007
A poll released yesterday by the Associated Press made it official: Americans are more likely to believe in ghosts (34 percent) than to believe that President Bush is doing a good job with the war in Iraq (29 percent).
So here's a spooky question: Why have Democrats, who now control both houses of Congress, failed in their efforts to end the war? Ask Rep. Christopher Shays.
Fourteen months ago, the Connecticut Republican, in a pitched battle to keep his seat in the House, announced that most U.S. troops should be removed from Iraq in 2007, saying that "the only way we are able to encourage some political will on the part of the Iraqis is to have a timeline for troop withdrawal." That position helped Shays squeeze out a 51 percent victory in his antiwar home state.
But yesterday, Shays sat opposite Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in a hearing in the Rayburn House Office Building -- while ferociously defending the war and condemning Democrats for supporting a troop withdrawal. "It seems to me the basic contention of the Democratic majority is 'Because Iraq is corrupt, we need to withdraw,' " he said, "which has come down from 'Well, we weren't winning, we needed to withdraw,' 'It was immoral, we needed to withdraw.' So that's basically what's on the table, which is patently absurd."
Shays's vigorous defense of the administration in odd-numbered years is emblematic of the solid Republican support Bush has relied on to thwart the efforts of Democrats to limit the war -- even though for Shays and others from liberal districts, this amounts to political hara-kiri.
"I can't think of hardly anything . . . my Democratic colleagues have done to help our soldiers win Iraq," he told Rice in his opening statement. "Everything this committee has done," he added, "has been to try to point out everything bad that is going on."
Shays blames Democrats for his increased patience with the war. Though willing to support a pullout by December 2008 (he opposed a pullout by early 2008) he said after the hearing: "They have not reached out to me."
Shays was Rice's most visible defender yesterday, but other Republicans on the panel competed for her affections.
"Let me thank you for the hard work you're doing for this country and your professionalism every time I see you," offered Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (Ga.).
"I have very great admiration and respect for you, especially so since a few years ago when I heard you speak to the National Prayer Breakfast," concurred Rep. John Duncan (Tenn.).
"I admire you tremendously," gushed Rep. Virginia Foxx (N.C.).
And Rep. Chris Cannon (Utah) declared: "I've watched you on TV, which really is what counts, and you've been calm and concise -- hectored but unharried."
The presence of such friends must have emboldened Rice, for she saw little need to respond to Democrats' queries.
Did Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki obstruct a corruption investigation? "There are concerns about the exposure of sources," Rice demurred. How about Maliki's order that his ministers cannot be investigated for corruption? "I don't know what precisely you're referring to." Is corruption in Iraq better or worse? "I really would be reluctant to make such a broad statement."
Rice even made sure to tweak Rep. Henry Waxman, chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform -- twice -- for his infrequent travel to Iraq. "I don't know when you were last in Iraq," she noted.
"I was there a couple of years ago, and I'll be happy to go again," Waxman replied.
Perhaps Shays will escort Waxman. "I've been to Iraq 18 times," he announced early in his questioning of Rice.
While other lawmakers each got five minutes to question Rice, Shays managed to grab three turns. When he wasn't speaking or raising his hand to speak, he was coaching four GOP colleagues before their questioning time.
Shays lobbed the softest of questions at the secretary. "Tell me what would be gained," he asked, referring to the Democrats' questions, from "a frontal assault against the prime minister."
"Well, I see nothing that could be gained from a frontal assault," Rice replied.
Shays condemned a House Democratic leader for saying that "if the Iraqi war went well it would be bad for Democrats." He said Democrats' impertinence "blows me away." As for Rice's refusal to answer questions, Shays said, "I'm happy that you have resisted."
Shays even defended the maligned Blackwater security firm when Democrats questioned Rice about a drunken Blackwater employee who killed a security guard for an Iraqi vice president inside the Green Zone.
"I'd like to point out that there appears to have been no witnesses," he argued.
"What Mr. Shays said to you is actually correct," Rice agreed.
Enough said? Not quite. When Waxman tried to shorten lawmakers' questioning time, Shays said it was "not acceptable."
"Mr. Shays has talked three times," the chairman pointed out.
Shays got more time. And when the hearing finally ended, he hurried to intercept Rice and gave her a hug. The secretary clasped his hand tenderly as she departed.