WASHINGTON -- Last month in Iraq, Sen. Gordon Smith, the Oregon Republican, had lunch with three soldiers from his state, one of whom had been working with an Iraqi officer training police cadets. That soldier told Smith that when the cadets learned that the Iraqi officer was a Catholic, they stoned him. To death.
As the legislative branch gropes for relevance regarding Iraq, attention is focused on Democrats. They control Congress and could end American involvement in Iraq but -- so far -- they flinch from wielding the only power that can do that, the blunt instrument of cutting off funds. Consider, however, Smith's plight.
The commander in chief is of Smith's party; Smith's Oregon base retains a loyalty, albeit attenuated, to the president; Smith's party is a minority in Congress, and he is essentially a one-man minority faction in the Republican Senate Caucus. So far.
His path to this uncomfortable position began when he boarded a red-eye flight to Washington from Portland last July, carrying what he thought might be interesting reading -- the book ``Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq'' by The Washington Post's Tom Ricks. ``By the time I landed at Dulles,'' he remembers, ``I was sick to my stomach.'' He was convinced that the American mission in Iraq was (in the words of a U.S. official in Iraq, quoted by Ricks) like pasting feathers together and hoping for a duck.
A few hours after Smith arrived in Washington that day, Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld attended the Republican senators' weekly lunch, where Smith asked if he had read ``Fiasco.'' Rumsfeld said he had not, and asked the name of the author. Smith recalls that when Rumsfeld was told it was Ricks, he dismissively said, ``Oh, that guy writes for the Post.'' Five months later, Smith went to the Senate floor where, distraught and speaking extemporaneously, he declared:
`I, for one, am at the end of my rope when it comes to supporting a policy that has our soldiers patrolling the same streets in the same way, being blown up by the same bombs day after day. That is absurd. It may even be criminal.''
Smith has endorsed John McCain's presidential campaign. But the core of McCain's campaign is the puzzling doctrine that if we do not win in Iraq ``they will follow us home.'' The global threat of terrorism cannot be defeated in Iraq, so, will terrorists not ``follow us home'' only if U.S. forces continue to engage them in Iraq -- where Gen. David Petraeus says there can be no military solution to that nation's afflictions? If so, that implies a need for endless engagement in Iraq, which is not a politically possible option.
In Iraq last month, Smith was dispirited by the contrast between meeting with inspiring U.S. troops and meeting with grim members of the Iraqi parliament. When the parliamentarians gave a dusty answer to his question about the length of the summer vacation they might take, he said: I want you to go -- if you will first pass legislation allocating oil revenues. Their response, he says, was to show pictures of people slaughtered in the parliamentarians' neighborhoods. They were, he says, bent ``on revenge, not reconciliation.''
Smith recounted this experience early one morning last week, a few hours before Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute, the president's designated ``war czar,'' testified to a Senate committee that Iraq's political factions ``have shown so far very little progress'' toward reconciliation and that unless they do so soon, ``we're not likely to see much difference in the security situation'' in the next 12 months. Until, that is, at least the homestretch of the presidential campaign while Republicans are defending 21 Senate seats.
Since Smith's ``end of my rope'' speech six months ago, the senator has been voting with the Democrats on such Iraq matters as time lines and benchmarks, stopping short only of voting for Sen. Russ Feingold's proposal to cut off funds for the war next March. Among Republicans, he is virtually a caucus of one. Unless you count Nebraska's Chuck Hagel, who counts less and less because he is decreasingly active among Senate Republicans.
Smith's loneliness may be assuaged in September, when Petraeus reports on the effects of the troop surge. ``There is,'' Smith says, ``a high expectation that we'' -- Republican senators -- ``will be able to vote for something different in September.'' And: ``I can,'' he says, ``think of a dozen Republican senators who will be with me in September.''