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Why Norm Coleman won’t say the war was a mistake

By Eric Black | Monday, Oct. 20, 2008
Does Norm Coleman think the Iraq war was a mistake? He won’t say so directly, but he almost concedes the point by the way he justifies not saying it was a mistake.

Norm Coleman has never said that the Iraq war was a mistake. Al Franken has been baiting him and did so again in their debate last Thursday in Duluth, when he said:

“It was a giant mistake, and Norm Coleman still will not admit that it was a mistake.”

I wasn’t at the Duluth debate. I’ve listened to the audio of the debate.  People I know who were there have told me that Coleman’s answer to Franken’s admit-it-was-a-mistake dare was one of the emotional high points of the evening for the senator. The answer, which is quoted in full below, is intriguing because Coleman almost concedes that the war was a mistake by the way he justifies not saying it was a mistake.

Before I drop the full answer on you, I just note that in it, Coleman doesn’t really discuss whether the war was a mistake (except for the red-herring discussion of mistakes that have been made in the conduct of the war, which is different from whether it was a mistake to invade Iraq in the first place). He certainly doesn’t say that it wasn’t a mistake. Instead, he gives a reason for not wanting to say that it was.

Here’s Coleman’s answer:

“We all want to get out of Iraq as quickly as possible.  The issue is, is who decides, how do you decide?  Do you decide based on what wants, do you decide based on what politicians in Washington want, do you decide, or do you listen to commanders on the ground, General Petraeus, and work with them and get our troops out so they don’t have to go back.

“Mr. Barkley’s talked about getting out very quickly, precipitously, you do that and in the end our folks would come back. 

“There is a difference between  Mr. Franken and myself on this issue. And again it’s not about whether you were for the war in the beginning. Because he was. It’s not about whether you were against timelines, because up to 2006 he wasn’t for timelines.

“But it is this ultimate question of: Are you going to say it is a mistake?

“I’m a United States senator. Among the most challenging responsibilities I have is I talk to relatives of loved ones, of folks who have died [while on military duty in Iraq].

“And one of the things I’m simply not going to do while I hold this office is to say this was a mistake.  Was there a mistake in reconstruction? Was there a mistake in the way the war was fought? Were there many mistakes made along the way? Absolutely.  And I’ve stood up and I’ve said that.

“But I’m not going to tell the parents of any kid who has died in Iraq that your son died for a mistake.  I’m simply won’t do that.”

Now a little factcheck and logical dissection of the answer:

Coleman, who was a candidate for the Senate in the fall of 2002 when the Iraq war resolution was being debated, was an unequivocal and outspoken supporter of President Bush’s war policy. Since then he has broken ranks with the Bush administration briefly, and rhetorically, as a partial skeptic of the surge. His position when the surge was first announced was that it seemed like a good idea in Anbar Province, but not in Baghdad where the majority of the additional troops were headed. He has since retracted those criticisms and said he was wrong about Baghdad, because the surge has been a big success.

 In his answer above, his suggestion that he has been a frequent critic of the conduct of the war is an overstatement.

Franken did support the war when it started. He did not make clear pro-war statements and has said he was very conflicted about whether the war was a good idea. But Franken has acknowledged that he trusted Colin Powell on the case for the war. He soon became an outspoken critic of the conduct of the war, but not until 2005 did he assert that the decision to go to war in the first place was a mistake. Coleman often brings this up to gig Franken, and Coleman’s statement about Franken’s original position is accurate.

Coleman is also accurate in stating that Franken used to be opposed to setting a timetable for withdrawal. As late as 2005, Franken still took that position. Since early 2006, he has been in the pro-timetable camp and his current position is very similar to Barack Obama’s: Start bringing home U.S. troops soon and continue at a steady pace until the combat troops are all out, leaving a smaller number for non-combat missions such as training Iraqi troops.

Coleman has been steadfast in the position that no timelines for U.S. withdrawal should be set. But his statement in Duluth that his differences with Franken are not about timelines is illogical. He says that his difference over Iraq with Franken is not about timelines, because they used to have the same position, but since early 2006 they have had opposite positions, so it is certainly part of the difference between them over Iraq now.

What about Barkley?
It’s kind of strange, because Coleman singles out Independence Party nominee Dean Barkley as the one who wants to bring the troops out “precipitously,” not based on conditions on the ground, which Coleman says increases the chance that the troops will end up having to go back to Iraq. Barkley actually has a very similar history and position to Franken.

Barkley came to the Senate (for his brief tenure to fill out the last days of Paul Wellstone’s term after Wellstone’s fatal plane crash) after the resolution authorizing the use of force in Iraq had already passed (Wellstone had voted against it). So Barkley didn’t have to vote on the war and, so far as I know, didn’t make a statement at the time about how he would have voted. He received senatorial level briefings about the threat of Iraq and its alleged (but, it turns out, non-existent) stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons and its alleged (non-existent) ongoing program to develop nuclear weapons. And Barkley’s brief term ended before the war began in the spring of 2003.

Chris Truscott, Barkley’s spokester, says that in 2004 Barkley first expressed opposition to the war, in an interview in the Pioneer Press, saying that the country had been deceived into it. But Truscott also said that Barkley, like Franken, acknowledged that based on what he knew and what he believed at the time, he would have voted to authorize the use of force. Barkley also regularly calls the war a blunder and pledges (this from the Duluth debate): “I will not vote for a single appropriation bill that will fund the continuation of the Iraq war unless there is a firm timeline for withdrawal from that war.”

But Coleman’s Duluth debate answer on Iraq focused on his differences with Franken, and especially on the question of whether Coleman should say that the war was a mistake in the first place.

So, I already reproduced the full answer above. What I note about it is that he didn’t say whether the war was a mistake or not. In my own exchanges with him on the topic, he has not given a straightforward answer to whether it was a mistake, but transformed my questions along those lines to questions he felt more comfortable answering. For example (this from his interview with me): “”Do I think the world is better off without Saddam Hussein running a country. The answer is yes.”

Coleman also suggested then, as he did in Duluth on Thursday, that questions about whether the war was worth it, or whether it was a mistake, were an effort to disparage the job that the troops have done or the sacrifice of those who have given their lives.

Here we are in territory that may be more emotional than logical. Whether the war was a mistake may be unknowable with final certainty until the end of history. But most of us probably know, in late 2008, based on everything that has occurred so far, whether we believe the war was a mistake. Coleman, challenged to say whether he believes this, said:

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“I’m not going to tell the parents of any kids who died in Iraq that their kids died for a mistake. I simply won’t do that.”

Which may be very admirable, but is very different from saying: “No, I don’t believe the war was a mistake. I believe that when it’s all over, the benefits to the United States will have been worth the costs, including the cost in the lives of U.S. troops.”

There’s a further logical problem. Any time the United States goes to war, some troops are going to get killed. It is at least possible that some of these wars will be mistakes. But under the Coleman principle, no caring person, or at least no sitting senator (read Coleman’s statement carefully and you’ll see that he has sworn not to call the war a mistake “while I hold this office”), should acknowledge that any war is a mistake, presumably out of concern for how hurtful it may be to the families of dead soldiers. So Coleman’s answer amounts to: Even if it was a mistake, I cannot say it was.

Why it matters
Personally, I do believe that the war was a mistake, a serious one and an avoidable one. All the Bush administration had to do was leave the U.N. inspectors in place and at work. No matter how many times people tell you that Saddam was giving the inspectors the runaround, it wasn’t true in those last months before the war. The chief inspector told the U.N.  — just days before his inspectors were pulled out of Iraq to make way for U.S. bombs — that inspectors were getting “notably prompt access to sites,” and were “able to perform professional no-notice inspections all over Iraq and to increase aerial surveillance.”

The reason I care whether elected officials who supported the war in the beginning now acknowledge that it was a mistake is this:

It seems less likely that those elected officials who realize the war was a mistake will go along again, under similar pressure, with a rush to war on questionable evidence and questionable arguments.

I certainly don’t want to add to the pain of parents whose children gave the ultimate sacrifice for a mission that I consider to have been a mistake, but I also don’t want more parents to lose more children just so that those who made the mistake can avoid admitting it or learning the lessons from it.

By the way, if you missed it at the time, and have the patience for it, I put together in August what I believe to be the most definitive review of Coleman’s and Franken’s history on the Iraq issue.

If you missed Thursday’s debate, it will be rebroadcast tonight at 8:30 on C-SPAN and