Bob Graham: Will the Grown-ups Come Home in 2005?

Ever since George Junior took over the White House in 2001, I've been waiting for the grown-ups to come home. Many of you, I'm sure, know exactly what I'm talking about. But for those who don't, I'll explain.

During their teen years, most people go through a know-it-all phase. They read a magazine article about the environment, and suddenly they are experts on pesticides (and won't eat the vegetables you buy at the supermarket no matter how well you wash them). From watching Gladiator three times, they know everything there is to know about the Roman Empire. If you remind them that you have spent your life studying the subject they're currently pontificating about, they roll their eyes.

The Bush Junior administration has been like that. The CIA told them that Saddam had nothing to do with 9/11, but they were sure he did. Years of scientific study and international negotiation culminated in the Kyoto Treaty, but they knew that all this global warming stuff was overblown. Economists predicted that adding a huge tax cut and a war to a large deficit would produce a truly whopping big deficit – but those economists, what do they know? Countless folks, including a bunch from the Bush Senior administration, warned them that governing Iraq would be harder than conquering it. But hey, you pop Saddam, sign some contracts with Halliburton and Exxon, hold some elections, and off you go. How hard is that? Don Rumsfeld in particular has me wondering if Freaky Friday is more than just a movie. He's flippant, moody, and never admits a mistake. Are you sure there's not a teen-ager in there somewhere?

Meanwhile, the lower levels of government are full of people who have spent their lives learning how some part of the world works – soldiers, diplomats, educators, scientists ... the list goes on and on. They're the grown-ups in the American government, and they're not in charge any more.

Bob GrahamMore than any other candidate I have seen so far, Bob Graham strikes me as a grown-up. He has served two terms as governor of Florida and is just finishing his third term in the Senate. (Think about that: a Democrat who has won five statewide elections in Florida.) He was chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee until the Democrats lost the Senate in 2002. After 9/11, he got together with the Republican head of the House Intelligence Committee so that they could produce a bipartisan report on what went wrong. (That's the report that the administration sat on for seven months and then censored heavily before making it public.)

He has lived for years now in the murky world of intelligence, thinking about disasters that could happen and sometimes do. He sees the ugly side of the world, and knows that we need to take action if we don't want the ugliness to take over. But he also knows we need to act wisely, thoughtfully, and prudently – like grown-ups.

A Nifty Talk in Keene

I've been curious about Bob Graham for months, but I've had a hard time getting to see him. He hasn't campaigned much in New Hampshire yet, and when he has I've been out of town. I've been puzzled by him: He is the only Senator in the race who voted against the resolution to authorize the invasion of Iraq (Dennis Kucinich voted against it in the House), and yet I've seen some very hawkish quotes from him in the newspapers. In the South Carolina debate that I watched on C-SPAN, Graham's whole message seemed to be that he could win because he could carry Florida.

I finally got to see Senator Graham at Keene State College in Keene, New Hampshire on Tuesday, August 19 – the day the UN headquarters in Baghdad blew up. (Graham told us that there had been a car-bombing in Baghdad, but I didn't find out the details until I turned on the radio while driving home.) The talk drew about 120 people, sixty seated in six rows of chairs, and about the same number standing around the edges of the room. It was an academic audience; before Graham arrived the room was loud with serious-sounding conversations, and after his prepared remarks the questions were articulate and well-researched. The tone of the crowd was strongly liberal. We enthusiastically applauded any statement against the war in Iraq, and we showed more concern for civil liberties and more sympathy for the Palestinian people than I have seen in any TV studio audience.

Graham waiting to speakThe talk was scheduled for noon, and Graham arrived about half an hour late – par for the course. His staff had pizza and coke for us, so there wasn't much to complain about. Graham was introduced by 2002 gubernatorial candidate Mark Fernald, who had also introduced John Kerry in Peterborough in April. (I have no idea what that means.) The Senator talked for a half hour and then took questions, which also seems to be about par.

The event had been billed as a symposium on foreign policy, and Graham treated it that way. (When we came into the room we had been given a one-page handout that had a paragraph describing his domestic policies. They seem fairly standard for a Democratic candidate. He wants to balance the budget and create more jobs.) He occasionally reminded us that he was running for president, but he did it with a mischievous smile, as if he really shouldn't be talking about that here.

The particular type of grown-up Graham most resembles is a high-school history teacher. He has the hokey, self-deprecating sense of humor, and the low-key-but-interesting classroom manner. He asked the audience questions from time to time, and shifted his glance around the room to make sure everyone was paying attention. I was glad I wasn't chewing gum.


Senator Graham began his remarks by talking about respect. Until recently, he said, America was not just the richest and most powerful nation on the planet, it was also the most respected. Perhaps the most serious mistake that the Bush administration has made, he charged, has been to dissipate that respect.

"It didn't start with Iraq," he said. "It started in the first days of this administration." One of the first things President Bush did after taking office was to reject the Kyoto Treaty on global warming. Bush said that the treaty was flawed and that his administration would make a better proposal, "but no alternative to Kyoto has ever come forth." This has produced a lot of resentment among our European allies, most of whom are strong supporters of the Kyoto Treaty.

A second blow to America's international respect came when we pulled out of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with Russia so that we could pursue a missile defense system. Graham was merciless in satirizing the missile defense system, saying that "even a smart second-grader" would know that a missile is the worst possible way to attack the United States. "Why send a missile with your markings and fingerprints all over it, when you could do what was done in Baghdad this morning?" But "in order to protect ourselves from the stupid second-graders" the administration has committed us to build a missile defense system, which required us to cancel the ABM Treaty "to the great embarrassment of President Putin of Russia".

During his 2000 campaign, Bush made much of his friendship with Mexican President Fox. But since taking office, Graham claimed, the Western hemisphere has gotten little attention from the White House. "Poor old Vincente Fox has been abandoned. I doubt he'll be telling his relatives in the United States to re-elect President Bush."

And so, when we needed the cooperation of France, Germany, Mexico, and Russia to get UN authorization to attack Iraq, they were not inclined to cooperate with us. And they're not inclined to bail us out, now that we're running into trouble. "International relations are like interpersonal relations. To get respect you have to give respect."

Fighting Mussolini

Senator Graham got a thunderous round of applause when he announced that he was the only senator in the presidential race who voted against the resolution to authorize an invasion of Iraq. "Wait a minute," he warned. "You may want to withdraw your applause when you hear what else I have to say."

Graham is a hawk on the War on Terror. "The war against the Taliban was a just war and related to what was our greatest threat." That threat was Bin Laden's terrorist training program in Afghanistan. "The CIA estimates that 75,000-120,000 potential terrorists were trained in those camps." He compared them to liberal arts colleges, and then said that graduate school in the more esoteric aspects of terrorism is currently being taught at Hezbollah camps in Syria and Lebanon. Those camps, he said, have to go also.

In the question period I followed up on this. Did Graham want to go to war with Syria and Lebanon? His answer boiled down to: I hope it won't come to that. He said that as president he would pressure Syria to close the camps itself. If it won't, the United States should be prepared to attack the camps. What he was describing was more of a raid than a war; it wouldn't involve changing the government of Syria.

Graham's main objection to the invasion of Iraq is: "We lost our focus on the War on Terror." Key people were shifted from Afghanistan to Iraq. The international coalition that was helping us track down Al Qaeda got fractured. He is no fan of Saddam Hussein, but by invading Iraq "we have dealt with the lesser evil."

He confronted head-on one of the major arguments of war supporters: the Munich analogy. Letting Saddam continue to rule Iraq, according to this argument, would be like the British letting Hitler expand in Europe in the 1930's. The culmination of this policy was the Munich Agreement of 1938, which allowed Hitler to take over Czechoslovakia. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain came out of the Munich conference with the famously incorrect assessment that "peace for our time" had been achieved. Whenever you hear some commentator or politician talk dismissively about "appeasement", he's making the Munich analogy.

Invading Iraq, Graham claimed, was not like stopping Hitler in 1938. It was "like making war against Mussolini and letting Hitler go untouched". In Graham's version of the analogy, it is Al Qaeda that corresponds to Hitler, not Saddam.

What to do with Iraq?

All the candidates I have heard – even Kucinich – recognize that if we just pull out of Iraq now, we'll have recreated in Iraq precisely the situation we invaded Afghanistan to remedy: Iraq will be a lawless region where gangs of terrorists can hide out unmolested by any kind of policing power.

At this point Graham went back into history-teacher mode, and reminded us of the great statesmen of the past. Lincoln, he claimed, gave a series of speeches around the country to prepare the public for the Civil War. Winston Churchill went on the radio to tell the British people exactly how serious the war with Germany might get. ("We will fight them on the beaches," he said. "We will fight them in the hedgerows.")

Graham wondered why Bush had not followed these examples. He gave an example of the kind of speech Bush could have given: "We may have to stay in Iraq for as long as five years. During that time we will probably average about one dead American soldier a day, and spend about a billion dollars a week."

He turned to the room and asked: "Did any of you hear that speech?" We responded with a very loud "No!"

Graham's plan for dealing with the occupation of Iraq is practically identical to every other Democratic candidate's. He wants to turn the country over to the UN, and he wants to get more Iraqis into decision-making positions.

The Elephant in the Room

When psychologists describe the concept of denial, they often talk about "the elephant in the room". The image is of a group of people having a conversation in a small room that also contains an elephant. Everyone sees the elephant and maneuvers around it, but no one mentions it.

When any of the Democratic candidates talks about foreign policy, Israel is the elephant in the room. They want to talk about the Middle East and about the terrorist threat from Arabs and Moslems, but they don't want to talk about Israel. For about a week after 9/11, Americans of all stripes were asking the question "Why do they hate us?" It's pretty simple, really. They hate us because we're helping Israel drive Arabs off of the land where they've lived all their lives. But no one wants to say that, because no one wants to hear it.

One of Graham's questioners had the bad taste to point at this elephant. He asked Graham to comment about the wall Israel is building to separate itself from the Palestinians. Now, I have to say that when I first heard about the wall, I thought it was a good idea. I thought that if Israel believed it could defend itself from infiltration by suicide bombers, maybe it would be able to loosen its hold on the occupied territories. However, Israel decided to build the wall on Palestinian land rather than its own. The wall is going to encompass all of Jerusalem, for example, putting Arab East Jerusalem on the Israeli side of the wall. Some Arab villages outside of Jerusalem are being bulldozed to make space for the wall. So the wall, which was pitched as a defense against the Arabs, has instead become part of Israel's offense.

The Bush administration is of two minds about this. On the one hand they don't like the wall because they recognize that it screws up their peace plan. (Colin Powell's State Department – one of the few grown-up bastions inside the Bush administration – suggested that we might cancel some loan guarantees to Israel if they didn't stop. Senator Lieberman immediately objected.) On the other hand, Bush's political base in the fundamentalist Christian community is intensely pro-Israel (more so than even the Jewish community in the Democratic base), so when push comes to shove Bush will always back down to Sharon.

(Those of you who do your best not to pay attention to the Jerry Falwells of this world may need an explanation of the Israel/Christian-fundamentalist link. Believe it or not, it comes down to an interpretation of the Book of Revelations. Armageddon begins when the rest of the world unites against Israel, and then Jesus comes back to save the Jews. So if you want more time to convert the heathen before the world ends, you need to put this off as long as possible. When the Quartet – the United States, European Union, Russia, and somebody else whose name escapes me – presented the Road Map for Peace, fundamentalists interpreted this as a sign of the End Times: The world was starting to gang up on Israel. I am not making this up.)

Despite being drawn back to this subject repeatedly by the questioner, Graham would not comment on the wall or say anything else about Israel. He recommended that the questioner read a book called In the Age of Secret Terror. I have no idea why.

Staying Out of Jail

The Bush administration classified one whole chapter of Graham's committee's bipartisan report on 9/11. If he discusses it in too much detail, he's breaking the law. The censored chapter considers the question of whether the 9/11 hijackers had help from foreign governments.

Graham clearly thinks they did. He puts it this way: 19 guys with no experience in the West, most of whom don't speak English, manage to survive in the US for more than a year, plan their attack, practice parts of it, get training for other parts, and carry it out – all without drawing attention to themselves. Graham pointed to the first four rows of chairs on the right side of the room. "If I parachuted all 19 of you into Yemen, could you do something like that without help?" Graham believes that the network that supported the 9/11 hijackers is still functioning in the United States.

The words Graham can't say without going to jail are: "Saudi Arabia".

The Patriot Act

I had my hand up when someone else asked my Patriot Act question: "Did you vote for it, and what do you think of it now?"

Graham did vote for the Patriot Act. (In the Senate, only Russ Feingold of Wisconsin voted against it. It passed 98-1. If you want to run for president, Russ, let me know.) He thinks it has been abused, and promised to fire John Ashcroft as soon as he gets the chance. (See my Gephardt report for what I think of that answer.) But he also said that the Act expires in 2005, and that he has opposed proposals to make it permanent. He promised that the Patriot Act would get a much more thorough review if he is president in 2005 than if George Bush is.

My Take

After seeing Graham, I still don't know what to think of him. I like him, but he scares me.

And I have to respect a guy who votes against a popular war at a time when he's thinking about running for president. (John Kerry, whom I also like, failed that test of character.) I think his hawkish position on Al Qaeda will give him adequate cover even if the Iraq War starts to look like a good idea – not that I think it will. I think he's very likely to be the Democratic vice presidential nominee. Gore almost picked him in 2000, and in hindsight probably should have.

In short, I haven't seen anything here to make me rethink my support of Howard Dean. (I told an AP reporter as much after the talk.) But I'll support Graham enthusiastically if he's nominated, and I even fantasize a little about a Dean/Graham ticket.

There Are No Stupid Questions in My Classroom

Graham asked Mark Fernald to choose the last questioner, explaining that politicians hate to make choices that create more losers than winners. Fernald chose a man, which created protest that no women had gotten to ask a questions (which I don't think was true). So Graham allowed one more question, and Fernald had the woman standing next to him choose the questioner. She chose a grandmotherly woman with a weak voice, who asked what I at first thought was a stupid question: Could Graham tell us how many American soldiers have been wounded in Iraq?

It was obvious to me that a younger person would have known to stick this question into Google, and not waste the time of the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee with it. And then I heard Graham's answer: No.

Not "No, I don't happen to know that number off the top of my head." Not even "No, I'm not at liberty to tell you." Senator Bob Graham, ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, would like to know how many American soldiers have been wounded in Iraq, but he can't find out. The administration does not release information about our wounded in Iraq. They pretty much have to tell us when somebody dies (at least so far), but if they can send a guy to the hospital and have him patched up, they don't have to tell us.

Getting American soldiers wounded makes the administration look bad, so "don't hafta" equals "not gonna". You know how teen-agers hate to be embarrassed.

But maybe, someday soon, the grown-ups will come home.

Doug Muder

August 22, 2003

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