"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 The outlook he developed was an old-fashioned Kennanism that was outdated when he got to Congress in 1991 and seems prehistoric four years into the Iraq War.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.
Reason: That deadline, "summer or fall"—that isn't the first deadline or timeline we've been told to expect progress by. Does the administration move the goalposts when talking about success in Iraq?
Gilchrest: Yep. The goalposts are moved on a regular basis. This football field isn't 100 yards. This football field has gotten about 3000 yards long. In 2005 the president had recommendations for the Iraqi government to reconcile the differences between the Sunnis and Shiites with the oil distributions, with elections, de-Ba'athifaction, with a whole host of things. And none of that's moved forward. You couple that with a weak Maliki government, with the Iraqi people seeing a weak government being propped up by occupying forces. Then you see the Maliki government being supported by Iran, an enemy of this country that we might invade or attack. We're looking at chaos.
Reason: Should we be talking to Syria and Iran?
Gilchrest: Yes. It's absurd that a strong country doesn't talk to a weak country. We never stopped talking to the Russians in the '50s, and we didn't stop talking to the Russians when they had deployable nuclear weapons in Cuba. We engaged them and worked through the process. We talked to the Chinese. We talked to the Soviets after Khrushchev pounded his shoe on the podium and said "We will bury you" to Henry Cabot Lodge. How did Ike respond to that? He invited Khrushchev to America. But who did we not talk to at that time? Ho Chi Minh. We're in a global marketplace, and it seems like some of my colleagues will endorse a global marketplace but they don't want to talk to any foreigners.
Reason: You're talking as if the people running our foreign policy don't understand history. Does Dick Cheney not understand it? Does Condi Rice?
Gilchrest: Condoleezza Rice compared the Iraqi situation about a year and a half ago to the stage we were in the American Revolution. I completely disagree with that. It doesn't come close. The American Revolution was between two similar cultures, it was over taxes, it was an extension of trade. This is gnarled with the intrusion of a perceived occupying force wanting oil. Some of my colleagues are comparing it to World War II or the Civil War. I disagree with that, because this is a new world. There are isolated, pathetic little situations that you can't beat with the same blunt trauma that you did in WWII. [Former Assistant Defense Secretary Paul] Wolfowitz never liked the policy of containment; he wanted intervention. Well, the policy of containment is what kept us out of WWIII. The policy of containment is what kept Saddam Hussein confined. When you lifted that policy with direct engagement, with military force and not enough of it, you unleashed a conventional military force to fight a very committed sectarian insurgency which doesn't lend itself to the military strategy Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz tried to pursue.
Reason: Rep. Sam Johnson (R-Texas), who was a prisoner of war in Vietnam, closed out the debate on the surge resolution by saying, among other things: "Debating non-binding resolutions aimed at earning political points only destroys morale, stymies success, and emboldens the enemy." Is that off base?
Gilchrest: It's absurd. When we do this we tell Al Qaeda that their days are numbered. The Sunnis don't want Al Qaeda there and the Shiites don't want them there. Sending the message that we're going to leave prods the Sunnis to stop fighting with the Shiites. A timeline sends signal that your days are numbered, your time is up.
Reason: And your votes don't embolden the enemy?
Gilchrest: I was in Vietnam. I was a grunt, up close and personal to what a bullet does to a human being, what a grenade does what mortars do. We craved someone in Washington who sounded like they knew what they were talking about. When I finished my first three months over there it was clear the tactics weren't working. So I don't think it hurts morale. We're not spouting off some talking point or soundbite about we're going to fight the terrorists. Those guys know what's going on.
Reason: You're a veteran and Johnson and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) are veterans. Why did you take such a different lesson from Vietnam?
Gilchrest: I respect both of those guys. But they flew airplanes. They were in prison camps. They weren't on the ground, fighting with the South Vietnamese army, or on the ground every day in 120 degree heat, or in driving rainstorms day after day after day, in the swamps, in the rivers, in the jungles. I respect them immensely but they have different perspective from someone who saw combat on the ground. Both those poor souls were tortured. My view is that of a grunt. I'm not talking "cut and run," not "the war is lost," not "we can't win," I'm not saying that. I'm saying we need a change in policy where we're fighting the terrorists.
Reason: Why did the Baker-Hamilton report fall flat?
Gilchrest: It fell flat because the president didn't do anything with it. The conference, unfortunately, takes its lead from the president. My hope at the time was that every member of the conference would read the report and then talk with all the people on that study group about how valid the recommendations were. Unfortunately, the conference took its lead from the White House. They didn't follow up on the report, they didn't even talk about it. It was a fundamentally sound change of direction that even recommended a troop surge, as long as there was also a surge in diplomacy—although it recommended 60,000 troops.
Reason: How often do you talk to the White House?
Gilchrest: I don't. I talk to Rice, to Negroponte… I talked to Rumsfeld on a number of occasions. [National Security Advisor] Stephen Hadley called me here to have a brief conversation on my votes. I listened to him respectfully and he listened to me respectfully. I've handed the president a couple of my ideas in form of letters. They don't consult with me, and they don't say "come up here and give us your views." Neither does my leadership. I give it out at the appropriate time. I'm just a little cog in this big wheel.
Reason: Rep. John Murtha (D-Penn.) said that Gen. Petraeus's appearance in Washington was political, meant to pump up support for the war more than inform the Congress. Is he right?
Gilchrest: I appreciate the fact that the general came here. I met Gen. Petraeus in Mosul and in Baghdad. I have a great deal of respect and I'm glad he came and glad he had a dialogue. And he also said here, again, clearly, that there's no military victory in Iraq, that it has to be a political solution. Look, Gen. Petraeus is a general taking orders from his commander-in-chief. He doesn't make policy. It is not his responsibility to say whether or not we're succeeding. The White House has to make that clarification. And for them to say "We're doing what the generals say" is irresponsible; it's just foreclosing their constitutional responsibilities. Gen. Petraeus can carry out the best tactics in the world but unless the overall strategy is well thought out he can never be successful. It always irritates me when they say "We're going to listen to the generals." They haven't listened to the generals from day one.
Reason: How do you interpret the Republican base on this issue? There are a number of ad hoc groups that bloggers have started to punish Republicans who've cast anti-war votes, like Florida's Ric Keller…
Gilchrest: Poor soul.
Reason: That was the Victory Caucus. How do you respond to these groups that want to oust anti-war Republicans?
Gilchrest: I know what I want to say, but my mother taught me not to say it. Look, history is a vast early warning system. Knowledge is key to this issue. Simplistic, dogmatic ideology confines and restricts your view of the world. So if you want to be loyal to the troops in the field, if you're saying you're patriotic, then you'll read a book like Anthony Zinni's The Battle for Peace. You'll read a book like Fiasco. You'll turn the damn television off every night for two hours and read some objective opinions on this thing. Ignorance is pervasive in any culture and ours is not an exception.
Reason: In 2006 the GOP majority held a vote on Iraq withdrawal that you said was intended to embarrass the Democrats politically. And then the GOP lost the elections in part because Democrats hit them on the war. Why have your colleagues misread the popularity of the war?
Gilchrest: I can't psychoanalyze those guys. I think the GOP was dissolving. Now it's drying up and the wind's going to blow it away. I just don't think we have the depth of knowledge, intellect, and experience necessary for a viable political party any more.
Reason: That's changed since you got to Washington?
Gilchrest: Sure it's changed. I was a Republican and I still am. I'm not sure if maybe the GOP has been hijacked by the base, or by Karl Rove, or by all of these peripheral issues.
Reason: Such as?
Gilchrest: Issues that shouldn't be occupying a nation like this, with our place in global politics. We're stuck on gay marriage, flag burning; we're supposed to make sure you get campaign contributions from the NRA. We were stuck with those for so many years.
Reason: You don't worry about another primary challenge from a Republican who thinks this war has to be won or those issues are important?
Gilchrest: I don't worry about a primary challenge. It's inconvenient. My eternal soul will last a lot longer than my short, pathetic political career.
David Weigel is an associate editor of reason.
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