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August 20, 2007

Rep. Baird's more optimistic view of Iraq

Posted by David Postman at 2:14 PM

Washington's Democratic delegation was united last month when Congress called to begin withdrawing troops from Iraq this year with a timetable that would have most out by April 2008.

But Congressman Brian Baird, D-Vancouver, said he only reluctantly voted for the resolution after failing to dissuade fellow Democrats from the tactic during closed-door caucus meetings. If he had to do it again, he said, he'd vote against the Democrats' move.

Now, fresh from a trip to Iraq and the Middle East, Baird is making his differences clear. He says there has been progress in Iraq in recent months due to the U.S. military surge and cooperation among rival Iraqi factions. He voted against the invasion of Iraq and says he's glad he did that. The invasion and occupation have included some of the worst diplomatic and military mistakes in history, he said.

But today Baird has trust in, and respect for, U.S. military and diplomatic leaders in Iraq. After years of doubts he said he feels he's getting "fully honest reports" about the war from the Bush administration.

At the core of Baird's evolution on Iraq is a fundamental change in his view of the "pretty standard wisdom" about the benefits of a troop withdrawal. That has been, he said, "if we didn't talk about pulling out there wouldn't be pressure on the Iraqis to make progress."

"I've come to see it almost in the opposite way."

Baird says a threat of a quick withdrawal brings a fear of a pending civil war. That, he said, could lead the Maliki government to foster closer ties to Iran out of "self defense." Forces on all sides in Iraq may decide to "retreat to the trenches and build their alliances."

"It seems to me the threat of withdrawal is not such a clean instrument and may be counter-productive."

Beyond strategic concerns, Baird says Americans have to remember the full story of Iraq.

"We have to really remind the American people that we destroyed their civil government, their police force, the military, their infrastructure; we left the borders unguarded and open ... and we also shut down most state industry, leaving people out of work and filled with resentment.

"We have a moral responsibility to try to help these people whose lives we have impacted."

Compare that to what one of Baird's Washington colleagues said after the July vote.

Rep. Jay Inslee, a Washington Democrat, said the United States has given Iraqi leaders "a reasonable chance" to work out their differences, and it was time for American troops to come home.

"The moral obligation to Iraq has been completed," he said. "The moral obligation to our families now needs to be honored."

I asked Baird if his views made him an outlier among House Democrats. He said that's probably true, though he hasn't heard much from colleagues since he returned from Iraq last week.

Baird was in Iraq and the Middle East in May. He said after that trip he sensed some progress. But this time he said he saw even more improvements in the U.S. battle to calm the Iraq insurgency. He was in Yusufiyah, on the Tigris River, which he described as "one of the corners of the Triangle of Death."

It has been a "very, very difficult place to hold" for U.S. troops. There were regular rocket and mortar attacks on the U.S. base and, Baird said, "every time they'd go out they were hit with IEDs and ambushes and they were getting no cooperation from local community leaders."

The congressman met there with U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker, Gen. David Petraeus and other officials. He said that last week he saw Sheiks and community leaders embracing U.S. troops figuratively and literally, whereas before they only met with military officials rarely and in secret.

Locals spray paint locations of IEDs and warn soldiers about the explosive devices. Mortar attacks are now rare, he said.

Baird said he would never say, as Indiana Republican Rep. Mike Pence did, that his visit was like going to his local farmer's market. Said Baird:

"There's a long way to go but the progress is real."

This will put him at odds with many state Democrats.

"You have to ask yourself on the progressive side, are we really comfortable leaving people -- who did nothing to have us attack them -- at the mercy of people who will cut heads off civilians and car-bomb schools because there are girls there? Are we really comfortable, morally, leaving that fate to those people and possibly allowing that to expand and spread?

"We are where we are and it's not about whether we like George Bush or not or whether we think one position will help win the next election or not."

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