WASHINGTON — President Bush and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi both need Jim Marshall.
He’s a House Democrat who represents the kind of Republican-leaning district in the South — in Macon, Ga., and its environs — that Pelosi must keep in order to hold onto her majority in the House.
And Bush needs the support of Marshall and Democrats like him to give his Iraq policy a chance of success.
Marshall left Princeton University in 1968 to join the Army and serve in Vietnam. Now a member of the Armed Services Committee, he has toured Iraq 10 times.
After watching President Bush’s speech Wednesday night in his office on Capitol Hill, Marshall told me, “The most significant thing is that this is an Iraqi plan. If you think about it, what has the government of Iraq tried to do or suggested doing anything as significant as this, with Iraqis attempting to take the lead? This is a big deal.”
“There’s going to have to be one heck of a great speech by Maliki to the Iraqis — because this is Maliki’s plan,” he said, referring to the prime minister of Iraq, Nouri al-Maliki. “And that’s wonderful, frankly, that this is an Iraq plan to secure Iraq.”
But he said, “This is a plausible thing to try.”
Not a last stand
Marshall did not see the speech in the apocalyptic terms that some pundits did: “People need to be thinking about this not as some sort of last stand or next-to-the-last stand, but as a reasonable thing for America to do in order to support the Iraqis.”
Video: Obama: Iraq plan 'wrong-headed' Marshall’s reaction was sharply at odds with that of many Democrats such as Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland, who said, “I believe we need to bring our troops home, not send more troops to war."
Will Bush’s address shore up support for the president’s policy in Marshall’s district in Georgia? “I don’t think the speech itself will change anything. The effect on the ground, the perceived success or failure — it is perception here that rules — that is what’s going to determine whether people think this was the right move or the wrong move, at this point,” he said.
He noted, “The president’s credibility is so low with those he has to persuade that words alone won’t push it.”
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Two days before the speech, Marshall worried in a panel discussion at a Washington think tank, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, that Bush would build up “some expectation that this (troop increase) is what’s going to solve the problem — and then yet again disappoint the American people by not solving the problem.”
Praises Bush for candor
And Bush scored on this point — in Marshall’s view: “I really think it’s excellent that he very clearly said in this speech that this is going to be a tough go, that our enemies are going to do their best to show American troops being killed on the televisions of America in order to discourage us. There is going to be more bloodshed … that this is not going to be some clean surrender like World War II.”
Unlike some Democrats, Marshall does not support complete exit of U.S. troops; but he also doesn’t think an increase in the number of U.S. conventional forces in Iraq is a good idea.
And he acknowledged after hearing the speech that Bush is taking the contrary approach by sending more troops.
Despite this, Marshall still thinks a smaller, long-term commitment of U.S. forces in Iraq is the best strategy. “That may be where we wind up,” he said.
Risk of entanglement in ethnic strife
He did admit that there’s the risk that in some joint U.S.-Iraqi patrols American troops might unwittingly get drawn into ethnic settling of scores, Shiite vs. Sunni, or vice versa.
“That’s entirely possible that will occur,” he said. “It’s extraordinarily difficult for soldiers in our circumstances to fully appreciate all the dynamics of what’s happening around them — we don’t know the culture, can’t speak the language, we have to rely on interpreters.”
On Monday Marshall used a word that Bush used in his speech Wednesday night, a word you won’t hear Democrats such as Pelosi use: “What this calls for is patience.”
He explained: “We can reduce the size of our conventional forces (in Iraq) at the same time that we increase the size of our Special Operations forces, (do) more training, more embedding — and frankly a difference in the size of the conventional force is not likely to change the security situation very dramatically at all, unless it’s taken a political signal that we’re withdrawing. So we should not be doing it as a withdrawal action.”
The classic counterinsurgency effort takes from 10 to 15 years, he said. Events move more quickly in the age of cell phones, but he said, “It’s certainly more than a few years, particularly when you’ve had the false starts we’ve had.”
Despite all the disappointments and blunders, Marshall said Monday he thinks that “the vast majority of members of Congress agree that it is in our national interest to be successful” in Iraq.
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