A Salute to the Hawk

John Murtha's stand redefines the debate over the Iraq war.

It's a rare moment when a lone member of the House of Representatives, one who is largely unknown outside his own congressional district, can step up to a microphone, make a statement and, by virtue of his pronouncement, single-handedly alter the course of the national debate.

That is exactly what happened in November when a Pennsylvania Democrat named John Murtha appeared alone at a press conference and called for pulling American troops out of Iraq as soon as possible and replacing them with a limited "quick reaction" force that would be stationed in the region.

At first, Republicans responded by going on the offensive. Within minutes of Murtha's declaration, the White House responded that "it is baffling that he is endorsing the policy positions of Michael Moore and the extreme liberal wing of the Democratic Party."

After the Republican House leadership engineered a vote on a troop withdrawal proposal designed to embarrass Democratic war critics, a vituperative debate ensued, marked by the comments of a freshman GOP backbencher who inelegantly suggested that Murtha was a coward.

But within two weeks, President Bush was forced to publicly clarify the administration's plan for winning the war in Iraq and a 38-page document called "National Strategy for Victory in Iraq" appeared on the White House Web site. Suddenly, the contours of the Iraq war debate had been redefined, largely due to Murtha's evolution from war supporter to critic.

How did one congressman's opinion come to have such far-reaching consequences? Perhaps because he is among the last of a dying breed.

He is a moderate in a party that is increasingly liberal, and he's a highly decorated Marine Corps veteran in an institution with a declining number of members with military service. At a time when the Democratic Party draws its strength from the two coasts and from metropolitan America, Murtha represents the places where Republicans have made great gains-the forgotten blue-collar small towns and rural areas of middle America.

Murtha wasn't the first Democrat to demand a rapid withdrawal, but he is without question the most meaningful, because of his stature as one of the party's leading hawks in Congress and as one of the most respected congressional voices on military spending. It was no coincidence that no else appeared with him on the podium when he made his announcement.

Through all of this, some unpleasant truths about Congress were revealed. The minority party's credibility on national security is so suspect that only one of its spokesmen has the standing to effectively question the president's war policy. The majority party is so deferential to the administration and reflexively hostile to its opponents that it is unable to distinguish between serious, thoughtful dissent from the president's war policy and that which is driven by political opportunism.

A few Republicans recognized Murtha's criticism for what it was. During the House debate over the Murtha-inspired withdrawal resolution, Sam Johnson, a Republican conservative from Texas, took to the floor to respond. A former Air Force fighter pilot whose plane was shot down over North Vietnam, Johnson spent 1966 to 1973 imprisoned in the hell-on-Earth known as the Hanoi Hilton. Just before delivering his strenuous objection to any withdrawal measure, he paused for a moment, looked at Murtha, and saluted.

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