Vets in Congress walk fine line on ending Iraq war

Back home, antiwar voters voice frustration over lack of a plan for speedy withdrawal.

When it comes to ending the war in Iraq, Toni Bailey thought she had her own white knight in Congress. Joe Sestak, a retired Navy admiral, won his House seat last year as a Democrat who opposed the war.

But eight months later, Ms. Bailey is angry. "Where is the ire of our Congress who, last election, had a mandate to end the occupation and bring our troops home?" the retired schoolteacher asked at a town-hall meeting here with Representative Sestak. "What will it take for the Congress of the United States of America to do the will of the people?"

It's a question on the minds of many voters frustrated with the war – especially those who elected military veterans who said they opposed the conflict. Now these veterans, newly minted as congressmen, are looking such tough crowds in the eye and explaining that withdrawal from Iraq isn't as simple as all that. The US exit must be carried out responsibly, Sestak says – and over the course of at least 15 months.

And Democrats simply don't have the votes – at least not yet – to begin withdrawal. "Many are aggrieved that this Congress has been unsuccessful in trying to end this war," Sestak said after the meeting. "As a representative, I have to listen, but it's also my job as a congressman ... to use my judgment."

The public response to compromise

Sestak's 15-months-or-more position is at odds with many Democrats who want a swifter withdrawal, though an increasing number of them recognize that it will take months to bring troops out safely. Ultimately, Sestak says, it's about political compromise – bringing together the "Titans" of the two political parties to fix on a sane but acceptable policy to withdraw troops from Iraq.

His position on withdrawal may make good political sense. The 7th district tilts decidedly Republican – nearly 60 percent – and is about 31 percent Democrat. With no political experience but an enviable fundraising machine, Sestak beat Rep. Curt Weldon, the firebrand Republican who occupied the seat for 20 years. Many in his district, as in the country at large, support withdrawal from Iraq, but also want to win the war there.

Sestak spent 31 years in the Navy and served on the National Security Council under President Clinton before retiring in 2005. He is now the senior-most retired military officer serving in Congress.

Rumblings at town hall

Trim and energetic, Sestak appeared before the town-hall group, taking some questioners to task and cajoling others. Many there wanted to see Democrats cut military funding in order to get troops home. Sestak believes Congress has the right to use the purse strings as leverage, but refuses to take that approach if it means troops will be left in the lurch.

"I will never, will never, ever have the troops over there without the funding they need," he told the group.

Sestak may be able to see himself reflected in one angry voter, a former Army officer named Matt Ross. Mr. Ross deployed as a combat engineer for the invasion of Iraq in 2003, then got out of the army in part, he says, because he couldn't lead soldiers in a war he didn't believe in. Now a project engineer for Sunoco, Ross helped Sestak get elected by collecting signatures in the early days of the campaign.

But while Ross still thinks highly of Sestak, he says he is disillusioned: Given Sestak's military background, he should lead Democrats in getting the US out of the Iraq war, or what he calls "a losing proposition."

"I'm a little disappointed that he hasn't taken a more active role on this issue," says Ross. "He has the credibility and experience to be The Guy, and I can't understand why he's not jumping on that role."

Limits of Democrats' action

Ultimately, Democrats can't pull the troops out of Iraq as fast as they want to without the requisite number of votes on Capitol Hill, says Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. To deal a deathly blow to the Iraq war, voters would have had to send more Democrats to Congress last fall. Currently Democrats have only a 28-seat majority in the House and are about split in the Senate. Even military veterans now in Congress can't change things all by themselves.

"They were sent to end the war, but what the voters do not understand are the fundamentals of the American system," Professor Sabato says. "You need a big change to have a big change, and the Democrats would have had to sweep the elections."

Still, not everyone is giving Sestak a hard time. Many believe he is pushing as hard as he can without politically isolating himself.

"He has a personality where he will go the extra mile and he cares," says Christine Stokes, who attended the last Thursday's town-hall meeting and became surprised at some of the stinging criticism Sestak received. Ms. Stokes, a budget manager for the Vanguard investment group who lives in Media, another nearby suburb, says she recognizes the power Republicans still have in Congress. But someone like Sestak will do what it takes to get what he wants, at least ultimately, she says.

"He has a lot more insight than we do, and he is walking the walk and he knows all the little nuances that occur within the party and what he can and cannot do," she says. "I'm sure, with his conscience, he's taking it to the degree he can."

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