Coleman on Iraq: Politics or principles?by Tom Scheck, Minnesota Public Radio
There are many members of Congress who are taking a skeptical view of President Bush's decision to send more troops to Iraq. Bush administration officials took some tough questions from lawmakers last week. One of those asking the questions was Minnesota Republican Sen. Norm Coleman. He's been a strong supporter of the Iraq war but is a vocal critic of President Bush's latest plan.
St. Paul, Minn. — In 2002 Norm Coleman was putting pressure on DFL Sen. Paul Wellstone to vote in favor of the Iraq war resolution. Coleman, then mayor of St. Paul, was President Bush's handpicked candidate to run against Wellstone. The two candidates were engaged in a bitter and hard-fought campaign and many thought Wellstone's vote on the war could be a factor in the election.
When Wellstone decided to vote against the war, Coleman said Wellstone didn't understand the idea of peace through strength. He said at the time that Congress should back President Bush.
"Congress is faced with a big decision and now is not the time to be passive, isolationist or apologetic," Coleman said at the time. "Now is not the time to think demilitarization or protest or demonstrations for the sake of dissent."
Wellstone died in a plane crash just two-and-a-half weeks before the election.
Now it's Coleman who is on the Senate floor talking about Iraq.
"I refuse to put more American lives on the line in Baghdad without being assured that the Iraqis themselves are willing to do what they need to do to end the violence of Iraqi against Iraqi," Coleman on the eve of President Bush's decision to send 21,000 more troops to Iraq. He said that he doesn't support the increase because he's worried that adding more troops will add more targets for the enemy.
Coleman's announcement is a dramatic departure, considering he backed President Bush's Iraq policy for most of his first term.
Seven months ago at the state Republican State Convention in Minneapolis, Coleman compared President Bush's efforts in Iraq to that of Abraham Lincoln's during the Civil War.
"This is a war we did not start, but one we cannot lose," he said. "President Bush is seeing the war in Iraq through the end because the objective is still the same. Failure in the war on terror is not an option. A democratic Iraq is good for the whole world. A weak and vacillating America is not an option."
But Coleman began to shift his tone and rhetoric last fall. Exit polls in November show that voters were unhappy with the war and took out their frustration on the GOP. Democrats took control of both chambers of Congress.
Steven Smith, a political science professor at Washington University in St. Louis, says Coleman saw up close what happened to Republican Mark Kennedy when he ran against DFLer Amy Klobuchar for Senate.
"Congressman Kennedy lost badly in the election. Surely the war in Iraq was a big issue. The congressman himself blames the war in large part for his loss," according to Smith. "Sen. Coleman must be worrying that this war is going to drag on for another two years with no significant change in conditions in Iraq and that Republicans will suffer badly in the 2008 elections, including him."
In a conference call with reporters last week, Coleman said he listens to the concerns of voters, but disputes that his stance on Iraq is based on politics. He said his opposition to a troop surge has more to do with what he heard during a trip he took to Iraq last month. He said he doesn't think more troops will reduce the sectarian violence in Iraq and wants to see greater efforts by the Iraqi government to end the fighting.
Coleman said every decision and vote that he takes over the next two years will be seen as political maneuvering for his re-election.
"It's certainly not a measure for me against 2008," he said. "They're measured upon what I think is the right thing to do and that's what I'm going to do."
Coleman says he will not support any efforts to cut funding for the troops and does not support any efforts to pull U.S. troops out of Iraq. He would not say if he would vote for or against a non-binding resolution that disapproves of President Bush's plan.
- Morning Edition, 01/15/2007, 7:20 a.m.