Republican Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska, an Army pilot during World War II, recalled last week how much he once despised the Japanese.
"When I left the war and came home, I had a deep hatred for the Japanese," Stevens said on the Senate floor. "Today, Mr. President, I have a granddaughter who is Japanese. I have a daughter-in-law who is Japanese, and her parents were involved in World War II."
Stevens was explaining his opposition to an amendment, promoted by Senate Democrats, expressing the sense of Congress "that the government of Iraq should not grant amnesty to persons known to have attacked, killed, or wounded members of the armed forces of the United States."
The amendment was spawned when the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, floated amnesty as part of a possible reconciliation deal designed to inspire Sunni insurgents to lay down their arms and participate in Iraq's nascent democracy.
Attacking the proposal was a tempting trifecta for liberal opportunists: They could simultaneously claim they were for the troops, tough on terrorists and against the war -- or at least against the way President Bush is prosecuting the war.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., called a snap press conference with co-sponsors Bill Nelson, D-Fla., and Bob Menendez, D-N.J., -- both of whom face potentially tough re-election battles. Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, summed up the Democrats' argument: "It is an affront, first and foremost, to our soldiers and their families, and second, to every American."
Stevens, however, was not affronted. Why treat all Iraqi insurgents differently than we treated Japanese soldiers after World War II, he asked on the Senate floor. "I believe we ought to try to find some way to encourage that country, to demonstrate to those people who have been opposed to what we are trying to do, that it is worthwhile for them and their children to come forward and support this democracy," he said. "And if that is amnesty, I am for it."
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who spent five years as a POW in North Vietnam, agreed. "The larger issue here is, I believe, that our goal is to bring an end to conflict as quickly as possible," McCain said on the floor. "If that means, in return for laying down their arms, that some are allowed an amnesty or allowed to reenter the society of Iraq, in a peaceful manner, in a productive manner, as has happened in South Africa, El Salvador and is happening in Colombia, and many other insurgencies throughout history, then I think, we should welcome it."
Stevens and McCain are right. To deny amnesty to every Iraqi insurgent who ever took up arms against U.S. forces would cost lives and postpone peace.
In war, there is a bright moral line: Don't target civilians. The late Zarqawi and his al Qaeda terrorists obliterated that line. They are war criminals.
But not all Iraqi insurgents are al Qaeda terrorists. Indeed, Bush's "National Strategy for Victory in Iraq" points to three different enemies in Iraq and three different tactics for dealing with them. These are: 1) al Qaeda terrorists, who need to be "killed or captured," 2) un-repented Baathists, most of whom must be "marginalized," and 3) Sunni rejectionists, the largest group, who "are recognizing that opting out of the democratic process hurt their interests."
"We judge that over time, many in this group will increasingly support a democratic Iraq, provided that the federal government protects minority rights and the legitimate interests of all communities," Bush's strategy concluded.
Yet, the Iraqi government reacted in true democratic fashion to the Democrats' outcry against amnesty: It flipped and flopped. Iraqi National Security Adviser Mowafaq al-Rubaie told CNN on Thursday: "We will never give amnesty to those who have killed American soldiers or killed Iraqi soldiers or civilians."
Then, on Sunday, the Los Angeles Times headlined a story: "Amnesty for Iraqi Rebels is Planned." "We are ready to sit around a table with all the Iraqis, even those who participated in the resistance and now repent that," Abbas Bayati, a Shiite member of the Iraqi parliament, told the paper.
Tuesday, the Senate voted 63 to 34 for an amendment defensively sponsored by Republican Majority Whip Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. It supported al-Rubaie's vow never to grant amnesty to "terrorists" who attacked U.S. troops. No Republicans opposed this amendment. Then, the Senate voted 79-19 for the sweeping Nelson-Menendez anti-amnesty amendment. All 19 opponents were Republicans, including Stevens, McCain and solid conservatives such as Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma and Jon Kyl of Arizona.
If al-Maliki can persuade Sunni rejectionists to lay down their arms in return for amnesty, the war will be won, and we may someday see Iraqi Sunnis the way we now see our friends in Japan. But if Harry Reid and company persuade the Sunni rejectionists that we will treat them as war criminals no matter what they do, the war may never be won.