Oh, this was going to be big. You could tell by the Nov. 18 front-page photo in The New York Times. There was Rep. John Murtha, a portrait in gray gravitas. In the background was a window with the Capitol bathed in the bittersweet November sunshine.
This was going to be big. The Pennsylvania Democrat was a tough-talking ex-Marine, Vietnam veteran and Democratic "hawk." And, wrote the Times' Eric Schmitt, this "influential House Democrat on military matters called for an immediate withdrawal of American troops" from Iraq.
Before the Iraqi elections in December, said Murtha, the Iraqis must be told: "The United States will immediately redeploy . . ."
A "hawk" urging "an immediate withdrawal" from Iraq -- holy quagmire, could this be the equivalent of Walter Cronkite turning against the Vietnam War?
But something happened on the way to the canonization. People started taking Murtha seriously.
Yes, it made for a good anti-war story to label Murtha an Iraq war "hawk." It fit so nicely into the "declining support for the war" line, but there were some problems. First, he'd voiced strong reservations about invading Iraq from the start. Second, there was a deja vu quality to last week's news. And with reason. In May 2004, Murtha had declared Iraq "unwinnable" unless we sent in more troops. Either that or we needed to pull out.
Question: How often can an Iraq war "hawk" turn against the Iraq war?
Apparently, as many times as required. For, on Sept. 17, 2003, the Times had reported, "One of the strongest Democratic supporters of the invasion of Iraq joined the growing offensive against the administration's postwar planning today, demanding . . . Bush fire his defense leadership team."
That would be Murtha.
In sum, Murtha hardly qualifies today as an Iraq war "hawk" at last turning against the war.
In fact, it's difficult to know how real last week's call for an immediate withdrawal -- "immediate redeployment" -- really was. Why? Because House Republicans actually took Murtha seriously. The next day Rep. J. D. Hayworth called Murtha on his call for an immediate withdrawal. The Arizona Republican pushed House leaders to put forward a resolution endorsing Murtha's proposal. The result of Friday's night's extraordinary debate and vote: Three members voted for the GOP's "Murtha resolution." And 403 voted against it, including Murtha himself.
It's a shame Murtha wouldn't endorse, much less introduce, a resolution favoring his own pull-out policy of the day before.
We need more real debate on U.S. policy in Iraq. Not the fake debates of news conferences and talk-show chatter. Not more hollow talk or political sniping. We need debates of consequence and accountability. We need people to vote on their brave proposals. Why? Because the stakes are too high in Iraq in particular and the war on terror in general.
Maybe Murtha didn't want to do anything to advance his own views and just wanted his talk just to remain part of the anti-war ankle-biting. And maybe there was a bit of partisan gamesmanship in the GOP move. But much good came out of the GOP's decision to take Murtha seriously.
"The Washington Post, the New York Times and Al-Jazeera all reported (Murtha) called for immediate withdrawal," Hayworth said. "I thought by Saturday morning seeing in Al-Jazeera that the U.S. House overwhelmingly rejects calls for withdrawal is the message we needed to send. " Exactly.
The special up-or-down attention paid to the "immediate redeployment" proposal prompted real debate on its merits. Or demerits, since pulling out before Iraqis are ready to stand alone -- before our mission is complete -- would be disastrous for the Iraqis and dangerous for Americans.
It could plunge Iraq into the civil war that we've avoided so far, despite the constant warnings of Iraq war critics here at home. It would risk creating a failed state that's a haven for terrorists rather than a region-altering democracy that Iraq gives signs of becoming. It would embolden terrorists the same way that the U.S. exit from Somalia emboldened Osama bin Laden.
Ironically, the Vietnam vet's policy of precipitous withdrawal -- heck, let's call it a surrender -- would do what events in Iraq and anti-war rhetoric here at home have so far failed to do: turn Iraq into another Vietnam.
Small wonder House Democrats didn't want to vote on Murtha's plan. Small wonder Senate Democrats such as Hillary Clinton quickly rejected his bug-out option.
Oh, it was all going to be big -- before it was taken seriously.