Q&A With Congess: Dems Oppose War, Iraqi Reconciliation

Senate Democrats staked out inherently contradictory positions on the war in Iraq last week. They simultaneously called for the U.S. to start planning to withdraw from the country while demanding that Iraq’s government not grant amnesty to Sunni insurgents even if they lay down their arms and accept that nation’s democratic government (see Terence Jeffrey’s column).

After the Iraqi government suggested an amnesty, Democratic Senators Bill Nelson (Fla.) and Bob Menendez (N.J.) sponsored an amendment opposing amnesty for any person who ever fought against the U.S. in Iraq. Republican Whip Mitch McConnell (Ky.) sponsored a competing amendment, supported by all Republicans, which more narrowly described the persons who should be denied amnesty as perpetrators of “war crimes or terrorist acts.” Only 19 Republicans—including such conservatives as Tom Coburn (Okla.) and Jon Kyl (Ariz.)—worked up the courage to oppose Nelson-Menendez.

I questioned senators about the logic of the amendment.

Do you support giving Iraqi insurgents amnesty if they wanted to lay down their weapons and make peace?

Sen. Sam Brownback (R.-Kan.): No. I voted both for McConnell and Nelson. There should not be amnesty.

Okay. So, if there is not amnesty and if an Iraqi soldier wants to make peace and lay down his arms, what should we do with those soldiers?

Brownback: If they killed Americans, they should be prosecuted. That’s the point of the vote on both of them.

Last night you voted to give amnesty to Iraqi insurgents. Can you explain that?

Sen. Tom Coburn (R.-Okla.): Not everyone who took up arms against Americans is somebody who we would normally oppose. Some people took it up because they didn’t want to be occupied. So, when you have a blind statement like that, I think there is room for saying some could, most shouldn’t and some can’t. So you can’t vote for it or against it without taking one side of the issue. Should [amnesty be denied for] everybody who has ever taken up arms against us for reasons they might have thought was right? In other words, truly loyal Iraqis that aren’t al Qaeda, that aren’t fanatics, but thought: “Hey, you’re invading our homeland.” Is there a possibility that they should be under consideration? That’s all I’m saying.

It’s important to distinguish between those that killed civilians and those that killed troops?

Coburn: Absolutely. And it’s not just that. Who are you talking about? There’s the Sunni extremists, the Shiia extremists, all with the different motivation. But then there is the Iraqi who says I am not any of those, but I don’t want you in my country occupying it. Ask yourself what you would do if somebody were occupying us? And should there be consideration of that. That was the purpose of my vote.

Last week on the floor you talked about why you thought it would be important to give Iraqi insurgents amnesty if they laid down their arms. Can you elaborate a little more on what you said?

Sen. John McCain (R.-Ariz.): All wars end. All wars end.

What would you say to the opposition who say that doing that doesn’t send a strong message?

McCain: When we stopped the war in El Salvador, they offered amnesty to those who were fighting against them. When they stopped the war in Colombia, 40,000 people laid down their arms according to an amnesty proposal. At the end of World War II, we pursued people who were guilty of specific war crimes and the rest of the people went back to becoming citizens of their country. All wars end. Does this mean we should go out and kill everyone who has gone out and killed an American before we can have peace in Iraq? And, it’s interesting, the people who are calling for a withdrawal also don’t want a settlement that would be anything but total annihilation for anyone that has attacked Americans.

Do you think denying the Iraqi government this tool to negotiate with would extend our stay in Iraq?

McCain: I don’t know. I think the Iraqi government is going to try to pursue a peace process that will bring this conflict to an end that almost every government does to end an insurgency.

Do you think we should offer amnesty to Iraqi insurgents that want to lay down their arms and make peace?

Sen. Jon Kyl (R.-Ariz.): The Iraqi government has said, or at least the Iraqi spokesman said, it doesn’t have any intention of granting amnesty to people that have done bad things to Americans. The problem that they have is that they have an entire army that fought the United States military during the invasion, eventually laying down its arms and scattering. Are they not going to grant amnesty to those people? So you have to make a distinction, I think, and the Iraqi government understands the distinctions that have to be made. If the question is did somebody fight in the Iraqi war when the United States took over the country and threw out Saddam Hussein, is that alone enough of a circumstance not to grant amnesty? I think most of the Iraqis would say no. Most of those people have had no reason not to become productive citizens in the Iraqi society and there’s no reason not to grant them amnesty as opposed to somebody that might have been guilty of heinous crimes. The point of the Democratic amendment was to try to mischaracterize the Iraqi government position by quoting one official and, frankly, take advantage of the situation in a very cheap political way that requires very serious thought.

Did you support giving Iraqi insurgents amnesty if they want to make peace and lay down their arms?

Sen. Rick Santorum (R.-Pa.): The two votes that I cast today say that it was the sense of the Senate that they not be given amnesty if they killed American soldiers.

Even if the Sunnis and the Shiia can make peace between each other, why should we not do this? Does that mean we are going to be there for a long time until we kill or capture all of them?

Santorum: No. Just because someone isn’t given amnesty doesn’t mean that you are going to treat them in a way that, for example, they may be charged with a minor crime. Some sort of punishment that may be a fine.

So there will be some kind of penalty?

Santorum: All I’m saying is they should not be given blanket amnesty so that there are no consequences to what they did. There should be some sort of procedure that they should be held accountable for this type of activity. That’s all I’m saying. That does not mean they should be treated as a murderer, that they should be treated as a felon. The government, in my mind, has wide latitude to treat them however they would like to treat them, but there has to be some sort of accounting and some sort of justice done. And just so you understand. These are not military operations. These are terrorist activities, fundamentally different than someone who is in uniform fighting us. If someone is in uniform fighting us then the war is over, the war is over. They shot us and we shot them and all’s fair in war. This is not a typical war.

Last week on the floor you talked about why you thought we needed to give Iraqi insurgents amnesty if they wanted to lay down their arms and make peace. Can you talk about that with me?

Sen. Ted Stevens (R.-Alaska): They were talking about every Iraqi that might come forward and support the democracy. I think there are some that come under the heading of murderers, others have been part of the insurrection and they are no different than those who fought the Civil War against the North. If you are going to have reconciliation and put the country together again, the country has to have the ability to treat people who were part of an insurrection in a military sense, even a paramilitary sense, in a way that encourages them to become a new citizen in a new democracy.

Is it important that we encourage the debate to distinguish between those who committed heinous crimes and those who wanted to end occupation?

Stevens: I’m not sure insurgents know who they are going to kill when they start blowing up IED’s. I believe that’s an act of insurgency. These people take some captives and murder them. I believe they are in a different category. That amendment said you can’t grant amnesty to anybody who has killed an American. Had we done that in the Civil War, we never would have had a nation. If we would have done it with the Japanese, we wouldn’t have had a partner in the world today. Japan is one of our great partners. Or Germany. Or anywhere along the line. The process of reconciliation worked.

If we don’t support the Iraqi government in negotiating deals like this, would it keep our troops longer over there?

Stevens: No question. If there is no incentive to give up, there has to be some recognition that this will be forever. The more that Iraqis can produce a reconciled government and can reconcile the differences between people within their borders, the more chance there is that they are going to survive as a democracy.