Opinion Focus

Eugene Robinson
Washington Post Columnist
Tuesday, September 11, 2007; 1:00 PM

Washington Post opinion columnist Eugene Robinson was online Tuesday, Sept. 11 at 1 p.m. ET to discuss his recent columns and the latest news.

Latest Column: 'Six Months' Without End (Post, Sept. 11)| Discussion Group: Mr. Robinson's Neighborhood

The transcript follows.

Archive: Eugene Robinson discussion transcripts

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Eugene Robinson: Hi, everyone. It's Day Two of Petraeus-and-Crocker Week here in Washington. Plus, anything else you'd like to talk about over the course of the next hour.

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Los Angeles: Thanks for providing these forums, they are wonderful. I'd like your opinion on the MoveOn.org ad calling out General Petraeus. I am a just-left-of-center liberal who was against this war from the beginning but feels this ad is over the top. Loath as I am to find myself in agreement with this administration, I thought Tony Snow's characterization of the ad as "sandbox stuff" is spot-on. I don't think the ad does anything to contribute positively to the national debate. Your thoughts?

Eugene Robinson: The reference is to the full-page ad in the New York Times calling Petraeus "General Betray Us." I thought there was nothing wrong with the point that MoveOn was making -- that the general isn't some kind of detached, objective observer -- and I thought it appropriate to make that point before his testimony (since the other side has been doing the same thing). That said, I didn't think the ad hit the right tone. The pun was a little sophomoric.

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Re: The disconnect: All of the polls in the past couple of days continue to show an increasing majority of Americans who are against this war and want to bring the troops home -- sooner than later (and we must believe that includes Republicans too), and yet the Republicans in Congress continue to line up with Bush. How are these congressional GOPers able to fend off the growing "surge" of those who want this war over (or at least a plan to end it) now? Is it party before the war, no matter what horrors are taking place in Iraq? I cannot figure it out -- can you?

Eugene Robinson: I, too, am having trouble figuring out what Republicans are thinking right now. Except for Lugar, Hagel and the others who have already questioned the war, Republicans seem to be going out on yet another limb with George Bush. Petraeus says, as if it's good news, that there will be "only" 130,000 or so U.S. troops in Iraq next fall -- the same number that were there when the Republicans got smoked in the 2006 election. Why does this make them happy?

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Fairfax, Va.: E.J. Dionne Jr. today contrasted Bush's "hard sell of the surge in the last six weeks (that) held most of his party in line" with the Democratic approach: "Privately, Democrats acknowledged that they had expected opposition to the war to grow more than it did this summer."

Can you explain why the Democrats did not mount a "hard sell" to rebut Bush's propaganda surge, and why generally the Democrats appear to think it is beneath them to try to persuade voters to see things their way? This criticism applies to Obama, Edwards and Clinton as well as the Democratic leadership. It especially is puzzling because the last Democrat who reached out to people and spoke his mind was Howard Dean, who successfully initiated the opposition to the war that now has reached majority status in America.

washingtonpost.com: Democrats' Last, Best Hope (Post, Sept. 11)

Eugene Robinson: It would help if the Democrats would come up with a more clearly understood policy. Polls continue to indicate that voters are finished with this war, but clearly Democrats are worried about being labeled soft on terrorism.

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Washington: Your column today is, as usual dead-on -- especially the observation about Congress deciding what wars this nation fights, not generals or diplomats. Which leads to my question: If the necessary majorities in Congress are too timid to take prescriptive action to end this war, why can they not limit use of funds appropriated for the war solely to expenditures necessary to effectuate the immediate return of U.S. forces and their protection in the course of their return?

Eugene Robinson: Seems to me that in theory they could. But in practice, it takes 60 votes to get anything controversial through the Senate, and the Democrats don't have nearly that big a majority.

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Greenville, S.C.: Eugene -- I read somewhere today that Ted Olson is being mentioned as a "possible frontrunner" to be nominated by President Bush for Attorney General. If he is nominated, has the DNC told you when to write your first column demonizing him? In our office pool, I've got Tuesday, Sept. 18.

Eugene Robinson: Let me check my inbox ... no, nothing from the DNC yet. I'm sure I would disagree with some of what Olson did if he became attorney general, since I'm no fan of his legal philosophy, but at least he's qualified to hold the office and wouldn't be an embarrassment -- unlike the departing incumbent. In any case, given your pick in the pool, my first dig at him definitely won't be on Sept. 18.

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Baltimore: With all due respect Mr. Robinson, seeing as you don't believe that the general is being objective, do you think that he should be investigated for lying to Congress under oath? There is no evidence that anything he said was not factual, and I'm amazed that he has been painted as a liar for weeks. This man has done nothing but serve this country his whole adult life and I think it's a shame he gets demonized for purely political reasons.

Eugene Robinson: I didn't accuse the general of lying -- I said he was not a detached, objective observer, and that's true. He's in Iraq to implement a counterinsurgency plan that he wrote. Most people, when they set a course of action and begin to follow it, see their gains more clearly than their setbacks. When I rate my own performance, I usually give myself pretty high marks.

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Seattle: If the surge was to buy time in 2007, what tactic will Bush use to buy time in 2008? Should we be worried that this might include an attack on Iran as an excuse to keep troops in Iraq?

Eugene Robinson: I think we should all worry about the possibility of an attack on Iran. The saber-rattling is getting louder.

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Washington: Is there any room in your world view for the feeling that we need to stay in Iraq because we destroyed the country? It was a historically dumb move of course, but leaving would create a bloodbath in my opinion. We're like a drunk who killed kids while driving: We have no morally acceptable choice but to make amends, no matter how difficult or unproductive that may seem.

Eugene Robinson: The question is: Are we making amends? Or are we keeping U.S. troops in Iraq to assuage our collective conscience, with the intention of forging a "political consensus" that the Iraqis have no intention of respecting, building "Iraqi forces" that are really sectarian militias in disguise, withdrawing in victory -- and then seeing it all fall apart?

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Eastern Montana: I was a bit stunned when Petraeus mentioned that something like 30,000 troops could be brought home this spring if conditions warranted -- everything I've heard indicates the forces are so stretched that 30,000 will be coming home by April, conditions on the ground notwithstanding. Their rotation is up, plain and simple. Do I have that right? And if so, why wasn't he called out on this? -- is this so that when they do bring the 30,000 home it must mean they've achieved a measure of success? The "Petraeus Report" strikes me as largely irrelevant theater. Your thoughts? And many thanks.

Eugene Robinson: My understanding is that it would be possible to maintain current "surge" troop levels through about April, at which point withdrawals would have to begin -- unless rotations were extended yet again. Petraeus is saying that token withdrawals could begin sooner. But the thing to keep in sight is that he still envisions having 130,000 or so troops in Iraq at the end of summer 2008 -- the same as pre-surge troop levels.

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Melbourne, Australia: We're like a drunk who killed some kids while driving, and, before he even sobers up, volunteers to make amends by driving the remaining kids to soccer practice...

Eugene Robinson: Well said.

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Landover, Md.: Why doesn't any one call Iraq what it is, a peacekeeping operation trying to keep warring factions who have popular support from destroying each other? When seen through the reality of a peacekeeping force, you see how absurd it is to think about military progress and tactical victories, when we should be concentrating on reconciliation.

Eugene Robinson: It's more than a peacekeeping operation, it's an occupation. And at the moment, we're arming all sides of the sectarian conflict.

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Washington: Hillary seems to be leading the polls for the democratic nomination and she has scads of money. She also voted for the invasion of Iraq and has said she will not bring all the troops home. Does this mean that most Democrats believe the problem was not the invasion but Bush mismanagement, and that if we get the right manager (i.e. Hillary) it will turn around?

Eugene Robinson: I don't think that's the view of most Democrats -- or most Americans. Of the Democratic candidates, though, only Richardson has been categorical in saying that he will withdraw U.S. troops within six months of his inauguration.

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Kansas: A friend of mine in film production often observes that, when managing large numbers of people and large amounts of materiel, failure to adequately prepare means that decisions often are made for you. He often will tell a producer something like, "you made that decision six months ago," meaning that the producer made a decision by failing to anticipate the issue and failing to plan contingencies, and that it is too late to remedy without a lot of money or bodies or both. If we apply this principle to Iraq, can it be said that the decision about whether to withdraw was made four years ago, and now we are just trying to keep our finger in the dike?

Eugene Robinson: I think it's certainly true that fatal errors were made even before the invasion. Gen. Shinseki warned that it would require several hundred thousand troops to occupy the country -- and, in thanks, received the back of Rumsfeld's hand. Destroying, or allowing to be destroyed, the whole apparatus and infrastructure of the Iraqi state was a mistake. Etc., etc.

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Charlotte, N.C.: Speaking of making amends, we could start with the several million Iraqi refugees. Despite the administration's talk about supporting the Iraqi people, the refugees have received almost no help from us. We might gain more credibility within the country if we started to take care of those who have been displaced.

Eugene Robinson: True. The general refugee problem is huge and growing. And then there's the special problem of Iraqis who have worked for American forces as translators, drivers, etc. -- their lives and the lives of their families are in mortal danger, yet the United States is moving at a snail's pace to get these people out and resettle them here or elsewhere. That is blood that truly will be on America's hands.

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Albany, N.Y.: I was interested in Washington's comment that we somehow broke Iraq. Huckabee said the same thing last week. I think Iraq was broken before we arrived. Was that an argument to not invade the country in the first place? I'm pretty sure columnist George Will has called Iraqis hard to help in the past.

Eugene Robinson: Iraq was a traumatized country when the U.S. invaded. There are many experts here in Washington or elsewhere who warned that the country was unified only by Saddam Hussein's terror and that there would be sectarian strife if the Baathist regime were dislodged. Ideologues in the Bush administration preferred to believe that U.S. troops would be greeted with rose petals strewn at their feet, and that Athenian democracy quicklywould flower.

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Eugene Robinson: Thanks, everyone. My time is up for today. See you next week!

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