MAY 7, 2007
One recent weekend, Michigan Senator Carl Levin traveled to AnnArbor to give a talk to a crowd of students. The brainy Levin isknown for his unabashed liberalism--he led the opposition in theSenate to authorizing the Iraq war in 2002--and, as CollegeDemocrats and antiwar protesters filed into the sunny room, itwould have been fair to assume he was only among friends. But, asLevin thanked a serviceman who had stood up in the audience, theprotesters held up their signs: aipac owns levin!
Protesters against Levin, an original hero of the antiwar movement?Over the last six months, the new head of the Armed ServicesCommittee has become an unlikely lightning rod for antiwar ire.Levin outraged old fans in February, when he told Tim Russert thatsome troops would have to be left in Iraq even after a pullout."[A]fter reading his statements over the last few months, it'sbecome clear that he doesn't get it on Iraq," lamented liberalblogger Matt Stoller of MyDD. Then, in April, Levin insisted that"we're not going to vote to cut funding, period" and that Democratswould ultimately have to strip the withdrawal timetable-- preciousto war opponents--from the supplemental budget. Hours later, aphoto appeared online with the word troopkiller stamped in redacross Levin's grandfatherly face. Another blogger was more to thepoint: "Carl Levin, you suck."
Levin's not the only Hill Democrat making new enemies out of oldfriends. The spring season has brought with it what looks like anepidemic of Iraq flip- flop fever. Barack Obama, who forcefullyopposed this "dumb" and "rash" war back in 2002, has joined Levinin suggesting he'd be willing to back off a timetable. Likewise, AlGore, another original antiwar voice, is cautioning against a hastywithdrawal. Meanwhile, Democrats who initially supported thewar--like John Kerry and Chris Dodd--have been eagerly jumping ontothe strongest antiwar legislation in the Senate, Russ Feingold'snew bill to limit funds for the war in 2008. But the mostchattered-about Iraq makeover is the one undergone by Harry Reid.
Last December, newly minted Majority Leader Reid, a bespectacled,soft- spoken moderate from Nevada who had voted to authorize thewar, decided to pursue an easy-does-it Iraq strategy that wouldslowly ratchet up the pressure on Senate Republicans. In February,he twice tried to send a nonbinding resolution to the floor; laterthat month, he assured the press that touching war funds was offthe table; in March, an emergency war supplemental was drawn upwith language that was more moderate than the House's, to keepcentrist Democrats like Ben Nelson on board.
Then, on April 3, Reid suddenly announced--without telling hiscaucus first-- that he was co-sponsoring Feingold's bill. Two weekslater, he pronounced that the "war is lost," causing a conservativepress perpetually in search of surrender monkeys to fall all overitself with glee. At what normally would have been an utterlyroutine think-tank speech last Monday, he railed that Bush was in a"state of denial," irritating Dick Cheney and some moderates alike."I don't think it's very helpful," says one aide to a moderatesenator. k
v The change was so startling that, all across the Hill, theoriesspawned to try and explain the leader's strange behavior. Maybe hewas taking his master December plan to the next level. Or perhapshe made a straight political trade with Feingold--Feingold's voteon the supplemental for Reid's shout-out on the defunding bill. Butthose close to him say it came from the gut. "This is definitelyHarry Reid," says a friend, "and not part of an overarchingstrategy. "
Reid's transformation began last summer as he made calls to bereavedfamilies while the administration's strategy floundered. "They havean impact," the friend says of the calls. "At some point, it's hardto separate the job you do from what you feel." The tipping pointcame on March 28, the day Reid made his first trip this year toWalter Reed. As he later told the press, what he witnessed therestunned and profoundly depressed him. He saw brain-damaged patientscondemned by Iraq to live out the rest of their lives with themental acuity of stroke victims three times their age. One 22-yearveteran told Reid she had a master's degree, "but now I can't evenremember my phone number." Shortly after Reid's visit to the Armyhospital, he picked up his phone and called Russ Feingold.
When he took to the airwaves the following week to explain why hehad decided to co-sponsor Feingold's bill, Reid spoke with thestaccato, repetitive cadence of a man radioing in an SOS call. "TheAmerican people, I repeat, have to understand what is happening. Itis not worth another drop of American blood in Iraq. It is notworth another damaged brain in Iraq. This is not the war PresidentBush said we were going into. It was a misrepresentation."
Reid's change of position appears to be a turnaround. But look moreclosely and there is a certain consistency in how he came to hisviews--and, likewise, in how Levin came to his. In the aftermath ofSeptember 11, powerful currents of solidarity and patriotismswirled through the Capitol, inspiring otherwise Bush-waryDemocrats to support the president's impending war. Reid wasdefinitely not the senator most feverishly gripped by this zeal, butit had swept him into the "yes" camp by the time of the vote, wherehe railed against Saddam Hussein, calling him a "third-rate thug"and declaring that he was confident that Bush "will do the rightthing."
Levin, on the other hand, distrusted the high emotions afterSeptember 11-- the "rhetoric and the exaggerations," as he callsthem, stoked by the president. It's these emotions, he believes,that helped let colleagues look past the consequences of going towar on shoddy intelligence and against traditional internationallaw. Now, as passions run high on the subject of withdrawal, Levinis still having misgivings--but, this time, about the consequencesof cutting funding and making a hasty retreat. "We should give theIraqis some notice, so it's not precipitous," he tells me. One ofhis big legislative priorities is to threaten the Iraqis with toughbenchmarks to force political changes, so the ultimate U.S.withdrawal will be less of a disaster. "He has a realization thatwe are where we are," says Senator Chuck Hagel, who works closelywith Levin.
If you think of Democrats' Iraq stances in terms of a dichotomy ofpro-war or antiwar, moderate or liberal, many will appearflip-floppy--especially those like Levin and Obama, who seem,bizarrely, to be turning more moderate as things get worse. Butstylistically, opposition to the invasion based on skepticism isconsistent with moderation now on how to draw the war to an end.
The post-September 11 moment led some Democrats toward war; to getturned around 180 degrees, some of those senators have had toexperience a big, horrifying realization of what that warunleashed. When I ask Levin if there was a moment--an ArmedServices hearing, perhaps, or a visit with troops--that opened hiseyes and altered his view of Iraq, he pauses. There has been nosuch thing. For him, the ride has been more level. "I'm afraid I'vesort of, from the beginning, felt that this was a mistake," he saysevenly. "So it's kind of hard for me to think of something that'schanged that view."