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Coleman and Franken on Iraq: Everything you need to know

The war in Iraq. It’s an important — but often confusing — issue in Minnesota’s U.S. Senate race between Republican Norm Coleman and Democrat Al Franken. What were their views in the run-up to the war?

U.S. soldiers stand guard on a road during a joint patrol with Iraqi forces in Baquba, 40 miles northeast of Baghdad, earlier this week.
REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani
U.S. soldiers stand guard on a road during a joint patrol with Iraqi forces in Baquba, 40 miles northeast of Baghdad, earlier this week.

Coleman on Iraq: the short version
Norm Coleman was an early and unconditional supporter of the idea of war in Iraq to remove Saddam Hussein. After four years of toeing the pro-Bush, pro-war line, he wobbled slightly in early 2007 by doubting the wisdom of the surge. He has since recanted those doubts, thinks the war is going well and takes basically the same position on current matters as John McCain and President Bush. He believes the prospects are good for a drawdown of U.S. troops, but it must be done based on conditions on the ground as reported by commanders in the field, not according to an “arbitrary” timetable set for “political” reasons in Washington.

He believes the prospects are good for the Iraqis to take over the lead security role with U.S. troops moving into the background, but has said several times in the past year that “we are going to be in Iraq for a long time.”

Coleman recently told a press conference that, even if he had known then everything he knows now, he does not consider his original support for the war to have been wrong.

In a long interview with me about the whole six-year U.S.-in-Iraq saga, Coleman declined to affirm that last statement.  I asked whether he believes that after the whole tale is told the invasion and occupation of Iraq will turn out to have been worth it for the United States. He declined to answer the question directly and instead converted it, as he has often done, to a question he felt more comfortable answering: “Do I think the world is better off without Saddam Hussein running a country. The answer is yes.”

Unlike McCain, Coleman was not an early critic of the management of the war. But he now says that big mistakes were made, in the reconstruction of Iraq and the underestimation of the insurgency that U.S. troops would face. He even said that:  “If I were in charge we would’ve done things differently.”

Franken on Iraq: the short version
Al Franken has had many positions on the Iraq war. Franken supported the war at the outset, although in a much more ambivalent way than Coleman did. He says he felt, at most, “53 percent” in favor. There were reasons to be for the war, and reasons to be against, but “all the reasons to be for the war turned out to be false,” Franken said during our interview.

Between 2003 and 2005 — a period when Coleman was not criticizing anything about how the war was being run — Franken became a sharp critic of the Bush administration’s handling of the war. But not until 2005 did he say that the original decision for war had been a mistake.

During the middle period of the war, Franken took many positions with which he now disagrees. He opposed withdrawing troops, said the United States had to find a way to win in Iraq, suggested that more troops might be needed long before Bush proposed the surge, and opposed cutting off funding for the war. As the middle years went by, Franken moved steadily deeper into the anti-war camp and now takes pretty much the position taken by Barack Obama and most Democratic congressional candidates: Start bringing the troops out now, according to a reasonable timetable so the withdrawal is not “precipitous,” make a “surge in diplomacy” with a conference that includes Iran and Syria to create a regional plan to keep Iraq from devolving into chaos.

Franken skewers Coleman for saying that if he had been in charge, mistakes in the reconstruction would have been avoided. He says Coleman was in charge, or could have been in charge, at least of congressional oversight, since he was chairman of the Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations (PSI), giving him broad discretion to investigate the foul-ups and sweetheart contracts for Halliburton and others.

Coleman acknowledges that he didn’t schedule any hearings on those topics during his tenure as chairman. He says that other committees had staff on the ground in Iraq and were better positioned to oversee the reconstruction, that Congress (with his support) created a position and an agency for a Special Inspector General for Iraqi Reconstruction, and that he never prevented any member of the PSI from investigating reconstruction contracts.

The plan for this post
The paragraphs above are a half-decent summary of where Franken and Coleman have been on the Iraq issues from the run-up to the war to the present. If it’s all you want to know, I’ll trouble you no more today. A more detailed version follows with quotes and other backup. And, for the truly obsessed, you can listen to my full interview with Franken here and with Coleman here . If there’s any value to listening to the interviews, it would be to hear the candidates deal, under more sustained, persistent questioning than they get in a press conference or a debate, with questions they’d rather not answer directly. Both these guys are smart and know the Iraq issue well, and that comes across too. The Franken interview is 45 minutes and the Coleman is 56.

A brief political analysis of the issue

By large majorities, the U.S. public now believes that the Iraq war was a mistake, which is Franken’s current position, not Coleman’s. For example, a July Washington Post poll asked whether the war has been “worth fighting” or not. “Not worth it” won by 63-36.

On the other hand, there is not a clear majority in public opinion on the question of whether withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq should be based on a timetable (50 percent in that July Wash Post poll) or on conditions on the ground (49 percent).

Despite that narrow division, in most polls, a large majority of those who say the Iraq war is the No. 1 issue on their minds plan to vote for Democrats in both the presidential race and close Senate races.

During 2006 and into 2007, Iraq generally polled as the most important single issue on the public’s mind. If Franken could turn the election into a referendum on the Iraq war, specifically a referendum on Coleman’s long-standing support for the war, he would be in great shape. Franken has brought up Iraq in four of his last five TV ads (plus two web-only ads). He talks about Iraq in almost every public appearance and has a full article on Iraq in the issues section of his campaign website. Coleman has not mentioned it yet in any of his six TV ads, and on his website, Iraq is mentioned in one paragraph of a general “national security” page.

But two factors have interfered with Franken’s strategy of making the election about Iraq. One, as U.S. casualties in Iraq have dropped over recent months, the war has been dropping fast on the list of issues on the public’s mind. General concerns about the economy surpassed Iraq several months ago, and most new polls find that energy prices are moving into second place, pushing Iraq into third.

In a recent poll that asked the question in Minnesota (Quinnipiac in July), the economy was rated most important issue by 52-16 over the Iraq war.

Secondly, the Minnesota GOP has succeeded in keeping most coverage of the race focused on Franken’s past writings and other personal issues.

End of political analysis, now for the full feed on Franken and Coleman on Iraq:

Coleman on the decision for war

In the fall of 2002, when Congress was debating whether to authorize the use of force in Iraq, Coleman was running against Paul Wellstone for the Senate. Wellstone, shortly before he died, was the only member of the Senate up for reelection to vote against authorizing the war. Coleman took the opposite position.

In September 2002, candidate Coleman said:

“Saddam is a menace. His menace grows with each passing day. History will judge us harshly if, knowing what we know, we fail to act with bipartisan solidarity to prevent the death of hundreds of thousands.”

He has never wavered about the position he took then. Coleman was a brand new senator in the final weeks before the war began with the bombing known as a “Shock and Awe.” He expressed  no reservations about the decision to remove the U.N. weapons inspectors (even though the inspectors could find no evidence of chemical, biological or nuclear weapons nor programs to develop them) so the bombing and invasion could begin. Nor has he publicly expressed any reservations since about his support for the war.

In a May 19, 2004, speech on the Senate floor, Coleman said:

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“Removing Saddam Hussein from the world stage was worth fighting for. Freeing the people of Iraq from tyranny and deprivation is worth fighting for. Planting an Arab democracy in the Middle East is an historic opportunity for freedom in this world.

“We are committed, Mr. President. Our only option is to persevere to victory. With all people, I hope and pray it will be soon.”

On June 16 of this year, Coleman met with reporters to preview the Senate race. He was asked whether his original support for the war was wrong. He said no, “based on what we had then.”

Rachel Stassen-Berger of the Pioneer Press asked whether “based on what you know now” — which I presume means what is now known about Saddam’s lack of WMD and lack of a collaborative relationship with Al Qaida, and how much longer and more difficult the war has turned out to be — “was your support for the war then wrong?”

Coleman’s reply began with “No, no, no.” But over the course of a very tangled answer that followed, he tacked back to “based on what I knew then I would have made the same decision.”

In our interview, I pressed Coleman on the point. Ultimately he would not answer the question of whether the war a mistake based on everything that is known now.

“Could have, would have, should have, I’m not in that business,” he said. “I’m in the what-do-we-have-to-do-now-to-get-things-right business.”

He also, as I mentioned above, reframed my questions about Saddam’s lack of WMD and lack of collaboration with Al-Qaida, thusly: “Going back, do I think that Saddam was a threat? Yes. Do I think that it’s better that he’s gone? Yes. There’s no fresh slate [where all questions can be reanswered in the light of new information, but] if you’re asking me whether it’s a good thing that Saddam is gone, the answer is yes.”

Actually, that was quite a bit less than what I was asking.

Democrat Al Franken, left, Independence Party candidate Dean Barkley, center, and Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., at a U.S. Senate campaign debate Tuesday.
Democrat Al Franken, left, Independence Party candidate Dean Barkley, center, and Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., at a U.S. Senate campaign debate Tuesday.

Listening to the full exchanges, both with me and at the press conference, Coleman seems to be saying that even with full knowledge of what has transpired, the war was not a mistake. But mistakes were made, specifically underestimating the insurgency and in botching the reconstruction. If not for those mistakes, things would have gone much better over the past five years and people wouldn’t be asking whether the war was a mistake.

Franken’s response to this was to accuse Coleman of engaging in “magical thinking,” where you get to change the past. He views the what-we-know-now portion of the question to include the mistakes that President Bush and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld made as something we know now. Franken also notes that Coleman was not among those Republicans, led by McCain, who challenged the administration’s handling of the war and even called for Rumsfeld to be fired. That’s all true. The day afer Rumsfeld was fired, Coleman released a statement saying that he welcomed the change.

I also pressed Coleman on whether, as a result of the Iraq experience, he has changed his thinking about the general wisdom of pre-emptive wars against countries that have not attacked the United States or about the importance of gaining U.N. agreement for a decision to launch such a war.

Basically, the answer was no in both cases:

• Coleman would never allow a decision to defend the United States to depend on the approval of the U.N., and

• Coleman does not believe that, if U.S. intelligence indicates that a particular country is a threat, that the United States has to wait to be hit before it can defend itself.

The trouble, Coleman said, is that the intelligence about the possible existence of such a threat has to be right. So the lesson learned from what happened in 2002-03 is that we have to fix the intelligence agencies.

The pre-war intelligence

At the June press conference, a reporter asked Coleman whether he believes “that this country was misled at the time that we were going to war against Iraq?”

Coleman replied: “I don’t think anyone said the country was misled. It was bad intelligence.”

The first half of that is wrong. Lots of people, including Franken, have said the intelligence was cooked by the White House to drum up support for the war, publicizing questionable findings that supported the war while suppressing aspects of the intelligence that raised doubts.

When I pressed Coleman about that, he said that you could have a debate about how the administration presented the intelligence to the public, but he rejected the intelligence-cooking idea. The findings of the U.S. intelligence agencies about Saddam’s WMDs were similar to the findings of the British, the French and Israeli intelligence agencies, he said. The Clinton administration had also believed that Saddam had WMD and had believed that Saddam represented a threat. Clinton signed the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998, which made “regime change” the goal of U.S. policy toward Iraq, Coleman noted.

I pointed out that Clinton had nevertheless not decided to invade and occupy Iraq in order to accomplish regime change. Coleman replied that the attack of 9/11 changed the calculus, and that during the run-up to the war, former President Bill Clinton had generally supported the Bush policies. All true.

Franken on the decision for war

Franken also supported the war at the outset. Coleman points this out regularly when discussing the topic. Franken doesn’t deny it (although I should mention that Franken flat declined when I first asked to interview him last year about why he had supported the war. When I renewed the request this year, he granted the interview.)

But Franken emphasizes that he was “very torn” about the arguments for and against the war and says he never publicly advocated for the war in advance.

That seems to be true. I can’t find a flat statement, before the war began, in which Franken said: Yes, I favor going to war. He backhandedly endorsed the idea in a Phil Donohue interview in September 2002 but his doubts were on full display:

DONAHUE: “Should we go get Saddam?”

FRANKEN: “I don’t know. It was interesting watching the debate early on. I really don’t know. You know, I call this Operation Finish Desert Storm. And I — you know, if I had 10 years ago — or 11, 12 years ago — been asked to vote on that, I would have probably said ‘Don’t.’ And I would have been wrong. I think we did the right thing then. We probably should have gone to Baghdad. So I don’t know.”

Franken’s ambivalence was on full display one month into the war (April 2003). In one brief paragraph of an interview with the Harvard Crimson, he managed to express support for the war, reluctance about the timing, a rally-round-the-flag impulse and first doubts about the administration’s competence. He told the Crimson that as “Shock and Awe” began, he had been hoping the administration would allow more time for weapons inspections, but then

“the day [the war] started I did that flip that most Americans did and said, ‘I just hope they know what they’re doing.’ But we’re bombing holy sites we didn’t even know existed. I thought we were supposed to know this place.”

In explaining his early support for the war, Franken has said that at the time, he had “trusted Colin Powell” and didn’t believe that any president, even Bush, would lie the country into war.

Yes, one difference with Coleman, as of today, is that Franken employs the “L” word in describing war-related statements by Bush and other war supporters.

As part of his stump speech, Franken often says that the skills of a satirist– the ability to see past the b.s. and get to the truth — are pretty good skills for a senator. I asked him if those skills had failed him in this case. “I guess so,” he said. He wasn’t in the Senate and didn’t have access to the intelligence reports, but “as a citizen, I regret not going out into the street and protesting the war.”

When did Franken change on the war?
Last year, on “Almanac,” Franken said that he turned against the war in 2003. But this is something between an exaggeration and an oversimplification. Franken says he believes that over the course of 2003, as it became clear the Iraqi WMD didn’t exist, he changed fundamentally from barely pro-war to strongly anti-war.

It’s true that during 2003, Franken became a harsh critic of the way the war was being run — the no-bid contracts for companies with Bush administration ties, the overly optimistic reports of how well things were going, the silencing or firing of administration critics. He called President Bush “stupid” for swaggering in July 2003 that if any Iraqis wanted to attack U.S. troops, his attitude was “bring them on.”

In his books, on his radio show and in interviews, Franken attacked those in the conservative media who exaggerated how well things were going in Iraq. He called Brit Hume “absolutely disgusting” for suggesting (with the use of fuzzy numbers) that U.S. troops were in less danger in Iraq than average citizens were on the streets of California.

But for all that criticism, Franken continued well into 2005 to say that there had been valid reasons for the war, though the statements of support for the mission were often cloaked in ambivalence. On “Fresh Air” in 2004, he said that he “supports the mission that we’ve been backed into, which is to make Iraq secure enough to become as Western style a democracy as it can be.”

A profile, published in April 2005, says that Franken opposed setting a timetable for troop withdrawals.

Neither I nor the Franken campaign could locate a quote earlier than fall of 2005 in which he specifically says the war was a mistake in the first place.

That first instance, just after Iraqis had voted by a huge turnout to approve the proposed constitution, occurred on the “Today” show in October. Host Matt Lauer asked: “Does that progress, though, on the political side, this freedom to vote and this turnout by the Iraqi people, does it justify, in some ways, the loss of U.S. lives?”

FRANKEN: “Boy, I don’t know. We — we have blown — first of all, we shouldn’t have gone in. We went in and I was — I supported it at the time because I believed Colin Powell, and I believed Judy Miller and I believed the administration, for some reason. We bungled it going in. We have had political — you know, when we turned over the interim government, gave them sovereignty, things are supposed to get better? They got worse. When we had the elections, the first set of elections and that was very inspiring; things have gotten worse since then.”

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As with Coleman, I asked Franken whether Iraq offered any lessons about pre-emptive war or the importance of getting U.N. backing before starting a war. Franken says that if he had been in the Senate he would have supported an amendment, offered by Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, to the resolution authorizing the use of force that would have required Pres. Bush to seek U.N. Security Council authorization for its plan to attack Iraq. Under that amendment, if the U.N. had turned Bush down, he could have come back to the Congress to seek authorization without U.N. approval. The amendment was defeated 75-24 shortly before the authorization for war was approved 77-23.

But Franken was unwilling to say whether, as a senator, he would oppose pre-emptive wars or attacks without U.N. authorization. He said it was hard for him to imagine supporting such a war, but the question was too hypothetical and would depend on the specifics of the situation.

Coleman’s steadfastness

Coleman’s critics often seek to portray him as a political shape-shifter, who trims his positions to seek political advantage and tries to please everyone.  On Iraq, Coleman has been steadfast.

In fact, Coleman says that Franken’s record on Iraq shows that Franken is the one constantly adjusting his position in search of political advantage.

I asked Coleman what evidence he had that Franken’s position on the war has been chosen for political advantage. He said that before Franken was a candidate, he favored the war, opposed withdrawing troops, opposed setting deadlines, opposed cutting off funding. Then he became a candidate in the DFL, where the party base has the opposite position on all those things. Now Franken has the opposite position on all those things.

Coleman expressed virtually no doubts or ambivalence on any aspect of the war during its first four years. Until 2007, he never broke ranks with the Bush administration nor the war’s steadiest supporters on any vote. (More coming on what he did in 2007.)

I asked Coleman’s spokesters for help in locating any public Coleman comments that criticized Bush’s war policies before 2007. They found a December 2005 article in which Coleman said Bush understood that he needed to do a better job of communicating with the public about the war, and a March 2006 article saying: “The president’s political difficulties have inspired Republicans such as Sen. Norm Coleman of Minnesota to suggest Bush needs to bring fresh blood into the White House. Bush rejected the idea.”

In September 2004, while chairing Bush’s reelection campaign in Minnesota, he said on the Senate floor:

“There will be better days in Iraq, and there will be worse days. There will be better days in the war on terror and, God willing, there will be far fewer worse days. But whatever the future brings, we must stand with this president and with this nation and its soldiers and diplomats, and we must on bended knee pray that our efforts bear the fruit of a more prosperous and more peaceful world.”

For obvious reasons, the DFL likes the portion of this quote about standing by the president, and uses it in its online “Coleman Files.” But the quote also captures the steadfastness of Coleman’s commitment to the war policy. In another 2004 floor speech, Coleman said:

“A decision to go to war is not a stock you buy or sell depending on how it is doing. We are in this war until we finish it successfully.”

But a case can certainly be made that, with the exception of the one period in early 2007, Coleman has been a Bush backer on Iraq, even in the choice of words and phrases that echoed the phrases of Bush administration officials.

In 2004, he said, with reference to the lack of a U.N. sanction for the war:  “America will never seek a permission slip to defend the security of our country.” Bush had used that exact “permission slip” phrase in his state of the union address.

He has described the enemy as “people who hate us because we enjoy freedom.” Bush had used the terrorists “hate our freedoms” language in his address right after 9/11.

 “America will not be safer if we cut and run from Iraq,” Coleman said in 2005. “Such actions will only embolden terrorism throughout the world.”

And he has said that the key difference between himself and Franken in Iraq is that Franken wants to “cut off funds for the troops.” (Franken once said the opponents of the war should “make the president cut off funding for the troops.” More later on that.)

His words choices are more senatorial than Franken’s. But he brought out the rhetorical heavy artillery in attacking colleagues who were calling for timetables or troop withdrawals.

In May of 2004, around the time of Abu Ghraib, U.S. Rep. Jack Murtha of Pennsylvania called the Iraq war “unwinnable.” Coleman went after him from the Senate floor, virtually charging Murtha with treason:

“Shameful. Outrageous. It demands the collective condemnation of all of us that we should give comfort to the enemy because of those seeking to score partisan political points.”

This year, as soon as John McCain locked up the Republican nomination, Coleman said on CNN that “John McCain will be a blessing… on making sure that we don’t wave the white flag of surrender in Iraq.”

Like McCain, by the way, when asked about the possibility of a long-term U.S. troop presence in Iraq, Coleman says that if the situation in Iraq comes to resemble the situation of U.S. troops in Japan or Germany, that will not be controversial over there or over here.

I asked Coleman, who emphasizes the importance of civility and bipartisanship, about the tone of such statements. Was it right to accuse those who oppose the war of “giving comfort to the enemy” or of wanting to “wave the white flag of surrender?” Coleman defended the phrase by arguing that Sen. Harry Reid, the majority leader, was indeed waving the white flag when he said that “this war is lost.”

Franken on the pre-war intelligence
After Franken publicly concluded that the war had been a mistake, he went through a middle period in which he acknowledged that he unsure of the best way for the United States to proceed in Iraq. In his most recent book, “The Truth, With Jokes,” published in 2005, he wrote:

“I don’t know what to do in Iraq. I don’t trust [the Bush crowd] to stay, and I don’t trust them to leave… I want us to succeed in Iraq, but I don’t know if it’s possible…Some people think that our presence there creates more chaos and that we should leave. Other people think leaving will cause a civil war…”

He continued to talk about the way Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney twisted the pre-war intelligence, although if you read the quotes, you’ll note that he accepted that Bush sincerely believed that Saddam had WMD. For example, on MSNBC’s “Scarborough Country,” Dec. 7, 2005:

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“FRANKEN: The president said certain things that he knew were not true. He said that al Qaeda received weapons training from Saddam Hussein. He said it as if it was a certainty. The Defense Intelligence Agency told the NSC that the al Qaeda detainee who said that was fabricating. And that was never shared with the Senate. Cheney said there is no doubt that Saddam possesses weapons of mass destruction. There`s no doubt that he has reconstituted his nuclear program. That was false.

“Condi Rice said that there was no other — no way these — nothing that these aluminum tubes could be used for, other than centrifuge and uranium. She had to know that wasn`t true. The Energy Department analysts said that they couldn`t be used to centrifuge uranium.”

In that same interview, he said: “Are we going to do what we said we were going to do when we first went there, and set up a Jeffersonian democracy? No. That’s just not going to happen.

In another interview, he predicted that the Bush administration, rather than cutting and running, would “turn and tiptoe out of there, declare victory and it will be a disgrace. It will leave an incredibly unstable Iraq.”

As late as June 2006, on his radio show, Franken spoke against setting a timetable for troop withdrawals, pointing out that “I may actually, oddly enough, agree with Bush here.” But by early 2007, Franken had moved steadily and firmly into the pro-timetable movement.

Franken and the troops
Franken has been to Iraq four times on USO tours to entertain the troops. In our interview, he said that he had been to Iraq before Coleman went, that his visits lasted longer, and that he spent a lot more time with ordinary troops than did Coleman, whose visits to Iraq were official congressional delegation tours.

Coleman and Franken both speak in reverential terms about the U.S. troops. As I mentioned above, Coleman used a common rhetorical tool in accusing Franken of wanting to “cut off funds for the troops.”

Franken did give Coleman a bit of ammunition by once stating he thinks the Democrats in Congress should “make the president cut off funding for the troops.” The Coleman campaign itself used those words coming out of Franken’s mouth in a web-only video designed to portray Franken’s contradictory statements on Iraq.

That sound-bite was a minor disaster for Franken at the time, but the reality behind it is more complicated. The discussion is messed up from the get-go because of the success that the pro-war side has had in publicly conflating the idea of funding for the continuation of the war with funding for the troops, as if any opponent of the war favors leaving the troops in Iraq without their equipment or without paying them their wages.

Franken’s position, at least since he made his “make the president cut off funding” statement on TPM-TV in June of 2007, has been this: The Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress should pass a bill that funds the military but is tied to a timetable for withdrawal. This has actually occurred, but when Bush vetoed the bills and accused the Democrats of cutting off funding for the troops, the bill was rewritten without the requirement for withdrawal. Franken says that instead of caving in when the president vetoes the bill, Democrats should keep passing the bill with both the funds for the troops and the requirement of a timetable for withdrawal. If the president keeps vetoing the bills, he will eventually have to say (as Franken put it in the TPM interview): “OK, I’m cutting off funding because I won’t agree to a  timetable.”

In our interview, Franken said:

I have never said that you don’t provide funding for the troops, but that you put the onus on the president and the Republicans in the Senate. And you provide the funding for the troops, with a timetable, and if the president vetoes it, it’s him cutting off the funding.”

I pressed Coleman on his use of the “funding for the troops” language. If a member of Congress opposes a war that is under way, what choice does he have other than to try to use the power of the purse to end the war? He said that the senator can “use the bully pulpit” to speak against the war but:

“The reality is that if you choose the path of cutting off funding, you’re going to hurt those you want to help. I don’t have a good answer for you… [If Franken were to follow the course he described], he would then be cutting off funding. There’s no question he would. You can make the argument that the president’s also responsible. The American people would ultimately be the judge of who’s held responsible. But [Franken] can’t avoid responsibility by saying it’s really not my decision because ultimately it’s the president’s decision whether to veto it or not.”

Coleman and the ‘surge’
Coleman’s one significant foray out of the do-whatever’s-necessary, failure-not-an-option camp occurred in January 2007 when Bush rolled out the idea of adding 21,000 additional U.S. troops in Baghdad and Anbar Province. Most Republicans backed the surge. Most Democrats opposed it.

Coleman took a middle position, the nuance of which was missed in most of the reporting. His own reading of the situation in Iraq was that 4,000 additional Marines in Anbar Province would help build on the turnaround there that had already begun because of the Anbar Awakening movement of Sunni tribes that had turned against the insurgency. But Coleman felt that the major part of the proposed surge — about 17,000 troops to be stationed mostly in Baghdad — was only drawing the U.S. further into the middle of a Sunni-Shia civil war, when the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government had shown insufficient willingness to take measures to satisfy the Sunnis.

Coleman wasn’t willing to vote for a proposed resolution sponsored by Sen. Joe Biden that opposed the surge generally, but he co-sponsored a resolution led by Republican Sen. John Warner because that version also included language opposing a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq or a cutoff of funding for the war. Even if the resolution had passed, it was non-binding and would not have stopped the surge from occurring. The resolution, in various forms, was successfully filibustered by Senate Republicans, so it never came to a vote, but Coleman was one of a small number of Republicans who voted in favor of cloture to force a final vote on the resolution.

Although this was, by far, Coleman’s biggest break with the Bush camp on a war-related issue, it would be hard to portray this as a move into the antiwar camp. Coleman’s floor speech included a repetition of past statements about the urgency of succeeding in Iraq. I went into depth on this at my old blog, the Big Question, at the Strib. At the time, I pressed him on what that meant. He made the surprising admission, for someone who had just issued a press release saying that failure in Iraq was “not an option,” that:

“The U.S. commitment is “not unending at all,” that “we do not have unending patience or an infinite supply of blood and treasure that we will spend.” And that “we may have to face the price of failure.”

In March of 2007, the Democrats forced another vote on a deadline for withdrawal. Coleman, as he always has, voted no, but told the New York Times: “There is frustration and deep concern about the war.” In July of ’07, he told the Strib that he was “deeply concerned about the president’s strategy and for American troops caught in sectarian violence.”

But, still steadfast on his underlying commitment, the Pioneer Press quoted Coleman that same month, thus:

“We are going to be in Iraq a long time. I am not supporting dates, specific dates, timetables for withdrawal. When my colleagues on the other side of the aisle talk about redeployment, they are talking about getting out of Iraq. I’m not. And simply because that’s the reality.”

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In September of 2007, Coleman actually endorsed Warner’s call for a token withdrawal of 5,000 U.S. troops by Christmas, as a way to put pressure on the Iraqis to step up. That is hard to reconcile with his more enduring position that troop withdrawals be based on recommendations by commanders and conditions on the ground.

But, in the same conference call with reporters in which he endorsed Warner’s idea, Coleman, who had just returned from a visit to Iraq, retracted his previous doubts about the surge.

“The surge is working,” Coleman said, in both Anbar and Baghdad. His doubts about the value of more troops in Baghdad turned out to be wrong.

Like McCain, Coleman is a huge admirer of Gen. David Petraeus, the architect of the surge, and has said repeatedly that Time magazine should have made Petraeus its “Man of the Year” last year.

Coleman on where we are now
During 2008 so far, Coleman’s assessment of the progress on the ground in Iraq has soared. Here is how he described the situation in his July 29 interview with me:

Al Qaida, which once talked of establishing the capital of its caliphate in the Iraqi city of Ramadi, is now close to defeat in  Iraq, “certainly on the run.” The rest of the anti-American insurgency is weaker. Iraq is no longer in a state of civil war. The anti-American militia loyal to rebel Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr has been “substantially defanged.” Neighboring Arab countries are talking about sending ambassadors to Iraq.

The ability of the Iraqis to take over the lead role in securing the country is increasing, Coleman said, and the ability of the Americans to shift into a backup role is happening “at a lot quicker pace than a lot of us even imagined even six months or a year ago.”

Coleman rejects the argument made by Barack Obama and Franken that Iraq became a distraction from Afghanistan. He says the United States had to win both in Iraq and in Afghanistan. But with things going better in Iraq, there’s every reason to believe that U.S. troop numbers in Iraq can start to come down, which will make it possible to send more troops to Afghanistan, as long as the situation in Iraq is based on conditions on the ground.

Franken on where we are now

Franken says the Bush-McCain-Coleman approach, which is typified by McCain’s statement that it would fine with him if U.S. troops are in Iraq for 100 years, if the casualty rate is down, “sends the exact wrong signal to the region” by reinforcing the widespread suspicion that the United States came to Iraq as a permanent occupying force to dominate the region and exploit the oil.

“We should renounce permanent bases,” Franken says. “We should renounce that we’re there for their oil.”

The Republicans keep saying that troop withdrawals have to wait for a greater level of stability on the ground, but “they don’t really define, as far as I’m concerned, what constitutes an acceptable level of stability for us to leave. How’s this supposed to end?”

Franken agrees that violence is down in Iraq, but he thinks the surge is overrated as a cause. The situation in Anbar started improving because of the Sunni Awakening, which began before the surge. The decline in violence in Baghdad is partly because the ethnic cleansing that has already occurred has separated the Sunni from the Shia.

The Iraqis are indicating clearly that they want the U.S. troops gone, Franken said. All of the political parties are pressuring Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to make the “U.S.-Iraqi status of forces agreement as “pro-Iraqi sovereignty and as anti-U.S. forces as possible. The Iraqi people are saying they want us out.”

But the presence of U.S. forces continues to make it possible for the ethnic groups and the political parties to postpone making the kind of accommodations they need to make.

“We have created a culture of dependency on our presence,” Franken said. “Our only leverage over Maliki, over the Sunnis, over everyone, is to say ‘we’re leaving. And you can’t fall back on our presence.’ To say we’re leaving and set a timeline and start to leave — with some flexibility of course. Don’t leave precipitously.”

Cost-benefit analyses, both candidates
I asked Coleman whether he felt he could tell Minnesotans that when the whole tale is told, the benefits to the United States of the Iraq war will have been worth all the price it paid in blood and treasure and other costs, such as the increase in anti-Americanism around the world.

In fairness, it’s a complicated question with many variables that requires a willingness to look into the future. Coleman never did answer the question directly and he led me in a pretty wide circle by suggesting that I was trying to get him to disparage the sacrifice of the troops, which he assured me he was “simply not gonna do.”

Of course I had nothing like that in mind — just asking for a speculative cost-benefit analysis on how the war will turn out. He did that thing where he changes my question to one he feels comfortable answering: “If you’re asking me that where we’re at now is a better place than we were at a year ago or two years ago, absolutely.” Of course, that wasn’t my question either. He then reviewed the positive accomplishments of recent months and returned, sort of, to my question:

“When the story is told, Minnesotans will be and should be proud of the sacrifice that our troops have made. And I think they’ll be proud to say that their sacrifice was worth it. At great sacrifice and great cost, certainly our troops have made great accomplishments.”

Franken delivered a much more direct cost-benefit analysis. He delivered it in response to the Coleman statement, discussed way, way above, about whether the original vote to authorize the war had been a mistake.

FRANKEN: “Knowing everything we know now. We’ve had over 4,100 troops die. We have had tens of thousands wounded. We have hurt our national security. We’ve hurt our standing in the world. We’ve empowered Iran. We’ve recruited jihadists all over the world. We’ve brought Al Qaida into Iraq. We have taken our eye off the mission in Afghanistan. We have made Israel more vulnerable. How could you think this was anything but an enormous blunder?”

Still haven’t had enough?

OK, I gave Coleman a chance to respond to an online video, below, in which Franken says: “This is Norm Coleman’s war as much as it is George Bush’s.”

Coleman’s response: “I think it’s a foolish cheap political comment. I don’t think most Minnesotans would give much credence to. Was it Al Franken’s war? He supported it. Was it Hillary Clinton’s war? I don’t think most folks are going to listen to that or it’s going to have any impact.”

I sent Team Franken the section above from this draft, in which Coleman argued that Franken has turned against the war for political reasons. The response, from Franken spokester Jess McIntosh, goes like this:

“I think you’ve talked with/read/listened to him long enough to know that suggesting Al Franken was pro-war until he ran for Senate is patently absurd.”

Eric Black writes about national and state politics, foreign affairs and other topics. He can be reached at eblack [at] minnpost [dot] com.

AUDIO: MinnPost journalist Eric Black’s interview with U.S. Senate candidate Al Franken on Iraq
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AUDIO: MinnPost journalist Eric Black’s interview with U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman on Iraq (brief moment of silence at the beginning, please be patient)
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