Sen. Jim Webb Loses Steam

Remember as far back as 2006, if you can (in Washington politics, that is like a quarter century).

By December 2006, over 800 U.S. soldiers and marines in Iraq are dead for that year alone, while a civil war between Sunni and Shia plays out in the streets like a daily waking nightmare. The Democrats have just taken back the Congress, and for a brief moment, it looks like the rubber stamping days of the Bush war policy are coming to an end.

No vignette encapsulated this better than when freshman Sen. James Webb (D-Va.), fresh from his narrow victory over Republican George Allen, stepped into a mid-November reception for new members of Congress at the White House. First, Webb described, he refused to get into the receiving line for the president. Then, when it was clear the former Marine and Vietnam veteran was not going to do the royal kissing of the ring, a peevish George W. sought Webb out.

“How’s your boy?” Webb recalled Bush asking.

“I told him I’d like to get them out of Iraq,” Webb, who had campaigned hard against the war, said. “That’s not what I asked. How’s your boy?” the president replied, according to Webb.

To which Webb said simply, “I told him that was between me and my boy.”

Never mind the gust of fresh air that exchange brought when the interview hit the newsstands, Webb also confessed to the The Hill newspaper that he had resisted the urge to “slug” Bush. Bam! After six years of the steroidal Bush-Republican ethos conflating manliness with patriotism and patriotism with warmongering, here was Eastwood’s Bill Munny standing up to Hackman’s Little Bill Daggett, and it felt great.

Not too mention the whining that ensued from polite and not-so-polite Washington circles. George Will, who over the last decade has been ineffectually criticizing the war with elaborate tsk-tsks and phlegmatic observation, declared “civility is dead,” while ferocious Ann Coulter found the incident so “shockingly rude” she put it in her book Guilty: Liberal “Victims” and Their Assault on America. “Is that any honorable way to treat the president of the civilization he (Webb) defended?” Actually, I’m sure there were plenty of Americans in 2006 who thought slugging Bush was the more honorable (if not cathartic) thing to do, given the circumstances.

Webb, the new junior senator from Virginia, in his demeanor and his bona fides—as a former Secretary of the Navy, veteran, conservative, journalist, author, seeming iconoclast and unconventional politician—promised to at least shake things up on Capitol Hill.

But, as fleeting as those first fresh blasts of air, Webb has announced his retirement, and we’re having a hard time arguing that he did anything of the kind.

He does say, that before the end of his term in 2012, he is going to push through a bill that would study current conditions in the U.S. prison system as a vehicle for a full-scale reform. He reintroduced the National Criminal Justice Commission Act (S. 306) on Feb. 8. Webb has admirably targeted the failed Drug War and draconian drug laws that have helped to increase the prison population 700 percent since 1972. Non-violent drug offenders, for example, constitute some 21 percent of the 2.3 million Americans incarcerated today.

“We have an incarceration rate in the United States, the world’s greatest democracy, that is five times as high as the average incarceration rate of the rest of the world.” Webb said during a floor speech (.pdf) in which he first introduced the bill two years ago.

“There are only two possibilities here: either we have the most evil people on earth living in the United States; or we are doing something dramatically wrong in terms of how we approach the issue of criminal justice.”

Webb has also tackled the massive problem of fraud, waste and abuse in private war contracting, helping to pass a law in 2007 establishing the Commission on Wartime Contracting. But the panel, though righteous in cause and prodigious in fact-finding, has been somewhat toothless in effect.

Probably his biggest accomplishment came over three years ago, when Webb was instrumental in authoring and passing the rehabbed GI Bill. The package of measures were essential to helping vets get the education many of them were promised when they enlisted (notably, fellow Vietnam vet Sen. John McCain joined the Pentagon brass in opposing it).

But where has Webb been on Afghanistan? As with his dressing-down of the president in Nov. 2006, it is safe to say one of his strongest assets in those days was his ability to effectively challenge not only policy in Iraq after Saddam was thrown out of power, but the rationale behind the invasion itself. Most antiwar politicians at the time were too marginalized to have broad-based appeal—Rep. Dennis Kucinich was too far left; Rep. Ron Paul too libertarian. Webb, who worked under the vaunted President Ronald Reagan yet represented the hope of both blue and red state Virginia, struck the right chord.

“The president took us into this war recklessly. He disregarded warnings from the national security adviser during the first Gulf War, the chief of staff of the army, two former commanding generals of the Central Command, whose jurisdiction includes Iraq, the director of operations on the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and many, many others with great integrity and long experience in national security affairs,” Webb said in the Democratic response to the 2007 State of the Union address.

“We are now, as a nation, held hostage to the predictable—and predicted—disarray that has followed.” He said time and again that he would not have authorized the president to go to war with Iraq in 2003.

Later, when the Bush administration brought Gen. David Petraeus onto Capitol Hill to intimidate senators into supporting the ongoing Surge in Iraq, Webb maintained one of the few credible pockets of resistance. He continued to question and criticize the administration’s elaborate PR campaign declaring Petraeus’ counterinsurgency operations a success. In a memorable July 2007 Meet the Press appearance with war hawk Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), he accused his colleague of putting words into the mouths of U.S. soldiers:

“This one thing I really take objection to is politicians … is politicians who put their political views in the mouths of soldiers. You can look at poll after poll and the political views of the United States military are no different than the country writ large,” he said. “Go take a look at the New York Times today. Less than half of the military believes that we should have been in Iraq in the first place.”

During Sen. Barack Obama’s campaign for president, Webb was a big supporter and continued to actively criticize the war, but now that his former Democrat colleague is safely ensconced in the Oval Office, Webb’s public opinions on the subject have been much more muted, and not as challenging as in the past. In fact, the record reveals a mixed bag rather than a clear, strident voice of reason and skepticism in these continuing days of the Long War.

In Dec. 2009, he called for “clarity” in Obama’s Afghanistan policy, which by then had already become a tug-of-war between the civilians in the administration and the military brass. Obama had just made his “surge” speech, announcing 30,000 more troops and the July 2011 deadline.

“We are ramping up deployment to about 100,000 troops, along with tens of thousands of American contractors and civilians, to implement a counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan. This greatly enlarged presence runs the risk, well rooted in Afghanistan’s history of resisting foreign influence, that the United States will be perceived as an occupying force instead of a presence seeking to assist Afghans in improving their stability and development,” wrote Webb in a Washington Post op-ed.

The rest of the piece basically raised more questions than answers and ended with his commitment to making sure the troops and their families don’t get burned out. All perfectly salient points for the time, but delivered with unusual detachment. And where was the follow-up? We can’t find it, because unless it went on behind closed doors, Jim Webb has instead spent his time on myriad other issues, particularly on cementing U.S.-Asia partnerships as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on East Asia and Pacific Affairs.

As for the military, instead of drilling down to whether the “greatly enlarged presence” was helping or hurting the long-term prospects for the war and for the country of Afghanistan, Webb helped Petraeus “breeze” through confirmation as the head of U.S. forces in Afghanistan in July 2010 (hardly the grilling he gave Petraeus and Gen. Raymond Odierno on Iraq in 2008). Instead, Webb and others signed a “letter” to Obama demanding “a definition of the end state for our operations in Afghanistan, clear objectives for the civilian mission, a detailed plan for achieving those objectives and the very specific, measurable metrics being used to measure progress” a month later. Not sure what happened to all that.

Aside from his August trip to Burma, the only bold move Webb has made lately is to put a blanket hold on all military officer confirmations. The heat under his seat, however, was the expected closing of the Joint Forces Command headquarters in Norfolk, Va.

It’s interesting to note, that among the speeches, news articles and press releases on the foreign policy/national security page of his official website there is very little mention of Afghanistan, much less Iraq (where the U.S. still has some 50,000 troops stationed). Under a linked page for “U.S. Strategy in Afghanistan” there is a rehash of his “call for clarity” position. Again, it all makes sense, but it hardly makes waves. Digging around a little more in the website, one finds a typically tedious interview with the inane Chris Matthews, before the end of which Webb says of Afghanistan:

“This may be a time to shake the jar and figure out what is actually doable not simply in the time period now into ’11, but for us as a nation. We aren’t very good nation builders. You know, we should be trying to fit in the war against international terrorism, and hopefully, some stability in the region, but we can’t rebuild that country. I just don’t think we can do it.”

There we have it. Unfortunately it sounds like Jim Webb used up all of his tenacity and dissent for when the other guys were running the war. Politically, that is understandable, but we wish it weren’t that way. We have Paul, Kucinich, Walter Jones and some dedicated others in the House who continue to make the case against the prolonged occupation of Afghanistan, but the Senate is starving for reason and for the kind of voice Webb used to bring when he was talking about the Bush policies of the past.

Maybe that role will pass to a Republican, maybe it’ll be Sen. Rand Paul, though it will still be sad to see Jim Webb leave so quietly.

Author: Kelley B. Vlahos

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer, is a longtime political reporter for and a contributing editor at The American Conservative. She is also a Washington correspondent for Homeland Security Today magazine. Her Twitter account is @KelleyBVlahos.