News Stranger Q&A with Rep. Brian Baird
posted by August 30 at 13:59 PMon
US Rep. Brian Baird (D-3, Vancouver), the liberal congressman from the southwest corner of Washington State, was for years a leading opponent and critic of Bush’s “War on Terror”; he voted against invading Iraq, against reauthorizing the PATRIOT Act in 2005, didn’t support the surge, voted in July to pull troops, and voted against the recent surveillance extension bill. Last week, he broke ranks with the Democrats and shocked his constituents by saying it would be a mistake to withdraw from Iraq right now.
He believes the surge is showing signs of success, and he thinks it should get another six months.
He brought this unpopular message to a town hall meeting in Vancouver on Monday night, where he got trashed by the angry crowd, which included people such as Iraq War vet turned high-profile anti-war activist Jon Soltz). MoveOn.org is now targeting Baird with a $20,000 TV ad buy.
I interviewed Rep. Baird about all of this yesterday. Baird was even-keeled during the interview— but man, he got notably irritated (pissed off, actually) when I asked him about Soltz.
The Stranger: What did you take away from that heated meeting at Fort Vancouver High School?
Baird: People are frustrated about the course of this war. They want the president gone. They want the war ended yesterday. The conduct of this president has angered people. And that's justified. People are angry at George Bush [because they were] lied to. There have been false threats and false hopes. People are angry about that, but at the same time the circumstances on the ground [in Iraq] have changed. It's a very difficult and big ask to get people to see and hear that. They've decided before the meeting, "Why listen?"
I did listen [to them] with open ears. It's difficult to hear the ad hominem attacks, and to see that people aren't listening. Although part of my job is to take criitism. I've done 280 town halls in my career. I take criticism.
People were not satisfied with me because they've made up their minds and [think] I should do what they want.
Stranger: Just so there's no moving the goal posts—what exactly do you need to see in Iraq six months from now to be okay with a withdrawal?
Baird: First of all, we have to begin a withdrawal in six months because we cannot maintain the troops at this level. But there have to be demonstrated successes [by Iraqi forces] against al Qaeda. Demonstrated strength. As there are more successes against al Qaeda and the militias the Iraqi military will get more trust from the Iraqi people.
Second, I want to see success in the benchmarks: a functioning infrastructure, the lights being on, clean water, in the oil industry. There needs to be substantial economic progress. One of the dumbest things we did is we shut down state-owned industries, part of our fear of communism I guess. That was a disaster.
Also, there's a lot of focus on the central government, but there needs to be success at the local government level. That's keeping the lights on.
Stranger: Politically, how do you feel about the fact that—as a longtime critic of the war—you can now be used as a poster child by Bush? It's sort of the opposite of what happened with Rep. Murtha.
Baird: I've been frustrated with the eagerness of both sides to politicize this war. If I remain silent when I disagree with my own party, that implies a tacit agreement. If I speak out, the other party picks it up. I don't support Democrats or Republicans [on this issue]. I've been to Iraq five times. I'm listening to what the soldiers told me. The question is: "What does Brian Baird think is right?" Both sides are going to have a reaction. But this isn't for political purposes. I do what I think is honest.
Stranger: Do you have anything to say to MoveOn?
Baird: I've been targeted by ads before. If [an elected official is] going to change their mind because of an ad, they shouldn't be in office. I'm going to listen to what Gen. David Patraeus, the best mind in counterinsurgency, and [U.S. Ambassador Ryan] Crocker have to say. I am going to listen to these people. And by the way, these are good people. These are not the same people who have been failing in Iraq all along. And just telling us what we want to hear. This is not [Paul] Bremer [former Director of Reconstruction in Iraq].
Stranger: Jon Soltz accused you of falling for a "dog and pony show."
Baird: I respect that Jon Soltz served in the military. But he doesn't have a clue about what I did over there. He never called to ask me who I met with. So many people have tried to say what I did over there. They don't have a clue. I set the agenda. Myself and [Republican Congressman from Connecticut] Chris Shays. We asked [for] who we met with. Was he [Soltz] in the room with me when I met the the staff of the King of Jordan? With the prime minister of the Palestinians? These people live in the region. They have contacts in Iraq. They have skin in the game. What we do matters to them. You think we can just walk away? The general sense I got from these people was that it would be a catastrophic mistake ...
Stranger: The Palestinian Authority told you America shouldn't withdraw?
Baird: I can't reveal what anyone specifically said about that. But here's a guy [Soltz] who didn't give me call. [Editor's Note: Soltz says he did.]. He says he knows who I met with. I think it's presumptuous. And profoundly disrespectful. I met with a colonel for U.S. special forces who buried his own men. Who looked me in the eye to say he lost 65 men. Buried 65 of his own men. But now he doesn't take incoming fire anymore. All they used to do, day after day, is take incoming fire. That's not happening anymore. The facts on the ground are changing. Unless Walt Disney was hired to set up an Iraqi Potemkin Village, I think it's disrespectful to say he knows what I saw. It's baloney.
Again, I respect that Soltz served. But I had a soldier, from my own district—not like Soltz, who flew in from New York— just 11 days back from his third stay in Iraq. He came to a town meeting the next night in Longview. The night after the one in Vancouver. He stood up and said, what you're saying is the truth. And a premature withdrawal now will undermine us. Mr. Soltz served. I respect that. But this soldier is from my district.
Stranger: Soltz also said that you're providing cover for the president's failed policy in Iraq.
Baird: This is one of the biggest foreign policy mistakes in the history of America. 3,700 U.S. lives. 20,000 injured. Trillions of dollars by the time it's over. It's a catastrophic mistake. I voted against it. Does that sound like I'm endorsing the president's policy? But set Bush aside. This isn't about Bush or our candidates or the polls. The facts on the ground are that things are improving. The other side will use what I say. But that's not my problem. My problem is to tell the truth. Even if my side gets angry at me.