"Here," says Rep. Wayne Gilchrest (R-Md.). "Have some cornbread."
The Republican from Maryland's Eastern Shore putters around his office in black sneakers, joking with his staff and offering snacks he just bought from the House cafeteria. And his plate of cornbread sits next to an unfinished document other legislators would have found time to slip into a file cabinet: "Finding a Bi-Partisan Diplomatic Solution to End the War in Iraq."
"That's what Walter and I were just working on," Gilchrest explains. He and Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.)—the North Carolina Freedom Fryer turned anti-war tubthumper—have been brainstorming ways to invigorate the Iraq debate. "The Iraq Study Group was never meant to stick around after its report came out," Gilchrest says. "So we're looking at other means and other people who go out there and advocate for the Baker-Hamilton recommendations."
Like Jones and 213 other members of the GOP, Gilchrest voted for the 2002 force resolution. "Blessed are the peacemakers who freed Europe from the yoke of Nazism," he said in a floor speech. "Blessed are the peacemakers whose save people of Kuwait from Saddam Hussein. It is not a matter for us as peacemakers of if we go into Iraq. It is a matter of when we do it, how we do it, and who we do it with."
Within two years of that vote, after taking multiple trips to Iraq, Gilchrest repudiated the decision. Talking to him the day after President Bush vetoed the Iraq supplemental funding bill—Gilchrest and Jones were the only Republicans who voted to override that—it seems incredible that he could have ever supported the war. He signed up with the Marines in 1964 and went to Vietnam in the grimmest, bloodiest days of the war. He survived a shot to the chest, and spent the decades afterward studying foreign policy, history, and why nations go to war. The outlook he developed was an old-fashioned Kennanism that was outdated when he got to Congress in 1991 and seems prehistoric four years into the Iraq War.
Reason: What's your reaction to the president's veto of the Iraq supplemental?
Rep. Wayne Gilchrest: The veto and the speech were both big disappointments because the president mischaracterized the nature of the legislation. There was no drop-dead date to withdraw troops. There was a recommended goal for beginning to leave in 2007. The president should have looked at that legislation and said "You have your goals, here are mine, let's see what we can do." We should be able to reach both of our goals in that short time frame.
Reason: What's the next step the House should take?
Gilchrest: There's been a strong message from Congress about the present policy. Next we need to get the funding out there and look at other ways to address the policy. We [in Congress] hold the purse, so for anybody to suggest that we don't have a constitutional right to influence the executive branch is absurd—really absurd. We've been on the sidelines for four years just watching this policy unfold. It is our right and responsibility to have an impact on this policy. Respect for other members of the government doesn't seem to be apparent to the president.
Reason: When you voted for the war you said that the Americans who would overthrow Saddam were "peacemakers." Do you stand by that?
Gilchrest: I stand by that rationale. That rationale was based on the Persian Gulf War of 1991. I was here during that war, during the debate, during the development of the authorization to use force, and this authorization for this war was virtually the same. What it meant was that you only go to war with all other options exhausted. After a couple of years, when all that began to unravel, that's when I knew if I had a chance to vote on authorization again I wouldn't vote for it. What I failed to consider was whether the executive branch was competent, informed, and had integrity. Under the circumstances, I don't think it was.
Reason: In February you said that the Democrats could count on 30 to 60 Republicans breaking ranks to vote for a non-binding resolution against the troop surge. Why didn't they?
Gilchrest: There were around 30 to 60 people saying they didn't agree with the surge unless the surge was of 120,000 troops and it came with a surge of diplomacy. The amount of troops going over for this surge, without any increase in diplomacy... they felt that was an extension of failed policy. I won't say who, but there were more than 30 in the Republican conference. Why would there be a change of mind? There was political pressure from the White House, from our leadership, from constituents who misunderstood the issue.
Reason: Who were some of these members? Rep. Chris Shays (R-Conn.), or...?
Gilchrest: I don't want to say who. I can tell you I talked to a number of members about their votes. Part of it was they wanted to give the president one more chance, to give him until summer or early fall. Ultimately that decision was made and they have to live with that.