Murtha's wrong, but he hit a nerve

November 27, 2005|By LEONARD PITTS JR.

WASHINGTON -- President Bush is right.

When Bill Clinton withdrew U.S. forces from Somalia after 91 casualties, it sent an unfortunate message: Bloody the Americans enough and you can make them run. When Mr. Clinton and Ronald Reagan responded to terrorist attacks by essentially shaking their fists, it sent another less-than-optimum message: You can hit the Americans with impunity.

It doesn't seem a stretch to draw a straight line between those experiences and the events of 9/11.

Thus, when Mr. Bush resists calls for an immediate U.S. withdrawal from Iraq because it would only embolden those who are already quite bold enough, he makes a valid point. No, we should never have been there in the first place. Yes, the enterprise has been marked by incompetence at every step. Still, we simply cannot afford to be seen as running away - again.

So yeah, I think Mr. Bush is right. More to the point, I think John Murtha is wrong. Mr. Murtha is the Democratic representative from Pennsylvania who made headlines recently by calling for an immediate pullout of American forces.

As I said, I can't go along with him on that. And yet ...

He struck a nerve, didn't he?

Mr. Murtha's impassioned call electrified the debate over the war in a way nothing else - not a major demonstration, not Cindy Sheehan's Crawford vigil - ever has.

It's not that he persuaded his fellow lawmakers to agree with him. A Republican-engineered proposal calling for a pullout (it was designed to get Democrats on the record on the issue) was defeated 403-3.

No, Mr. Murtha's achievement is that he challenged us to define this ill-defined mission, to decide what "victory" will finally look like. In the process, he also managed to show us the character of those who sold and support this war. He ripped away the mask and dragged truth, blinking, into the light.

I mean, did you see the way they went after the man? House Speaker Dennis Hastert accused him of wanting to "surrender" to terrorists. The White House said he was in thrall to the "extreme liberal wing" of the Democratic Party. But the coup de grace was left to Rep. Jean Schmidt from Ohio, who delivered what she said was a message from a Marine colonel:

"He asked me to send Congress a message: Stay the course. He also asked me to send Congressman Murtha a message: That cowards cut and run, Marines never do."

The comment roiled the House; one lawmaker had to be physically restrained.

Yet, who can be surprised? Lowbrow attacks have always been part of the playbook for Mr. Bush and his surrogates: When you don't like the message, kill the messenger. Call him unpatriotic, call him crazy, call her a liar, smear his name with every half-truth and non-truth you can. It happened to former counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke, to former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, to Sen. John Kerry, to the anti-war activist Ms. Sheehan. Happens to anyone who dares disagree too loudly with the great and powerful Mr. Bush.

But Mr. Murtha is less vulnerable than most. As Ms. Schmidt apparently learned to her embarrassment only after she delivered her ill-advised lecture, he is a decorated ex-Marine who served in Vietnam and has a 30-year congressional record of supporting the military. He enjoys bipartisan respect.

Small wonder the White House was last seen frantically making nice. "A fine man," the president said of Mr. Murtha last Sunday. "A good man," Vice President Richard Cheney parroted the next day.

It was, for the Bush team, an extraordinary concession to decency. Apparently, they had finally gone too far even for themselves.

I disagree with Mr. Murtha's proposal, but I'm glad he offered it, mainly because it encouraged these people to reveal themselves, inarguably and unmistakably.

Even when they're right, they're wrong.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald. His column appears Sundays in The Sun. His e-mail is

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