WASHINGTON - Virginia Senator Jim Webb, who runs his office on military
time, is not yet indifferent to keeping people waiting, and he
apologizes for the imprecision of his schedule. "They're like three root
canals behind here," he says, looking around what he apparently sees as
the world's most elaborate dentist's office, just off the Senate floor,
where several of his scowling colleagues are pacing around trying to get
a cell signal in between budget votes.
All of which reminds me, I tell him, of my husband's campaign season
prediction that even if elected, the ex-Marine, whose unofficial
campaign slogan was, "It's all about the beer," wasn't apt to like the
folderol and general gasbaggery of the Senate very much -- and my own
view, which was, "Baby, we don't care."
He laughs and says he had just been talking about that with his longtime
friend and fellow Vietnam vet Bob Kerrey, the former Senator from
Nebraska. "And I was telling him that it's going OK, other than that
I've never been very good at being walked on a leash. But, these are
really important issues we're dealing with right now, and I thought
about it all before."
Today, the Senate intends to get back to work on an Iraq plan. And
because Webb ran against the war, which he had argued against from the
start, I ask him to walk those who share that view through why Congress
has seemed in no great hurry to respond to public opinion.
Instead, however, he explains why he himself opposes a timetable for
withdrawal -- and why, just this once, he happens to agree with the
president. Though "the presence of American troops in Iraq is
destabilizing," Webb says, timetables are utterly unworkable on the
ground, in his view.
He is convinced that cutting off funding would be too hard to do in a
sufficiently targeted way, and that troop caps "mean you've just given
the administration the floor" -- and thus would actually decrease the
likelihood of a full withdrawal.
Instead, the focus should be on the diplomatic front -- because without
real progress there, all the caps and cuts and timetables in the world
won't mean much, he argues: "If you get the diplomatic umbrella in
place, you can withdraw expeditiously, but it doesn't work the other way
So he doesn't see the sense in either "the Democrats pushing to
withdraw, withdraw, withdraw -- without putting diplomacy first" or the
Republican focus on bringing factions within Iraq together without
recognizing the necessity of a regional approach.
"I've been arguing for three years that the way to get out is through a
diplomatic approach and we have caused a shift" in the
administration's approach in recent weeks. And though he is one of 100,
he does feel as though his efforts have had some effect: "After the
second time (Secretary of State Condoleezza) Rice testified, she brought
me in one-on-one and I pushed her on bringing Iran and Syria to the
table in a way where you don't have to bring in other issues. And
right after that, we saw the announcement that we're going forward with
the diplomatic approach. People who have been frustrated with this war --
and I'm one of them -- can see this is going in the right direction now.
Honestly, I think Secretary Rice has been value-added."
After a speech he gave last week at the National Press Club, he was
asked about parallels between Iraq and Vietnam, and said that he must be
the only guy in town who didn't really see any: "I don't believe there
are parallels between Vietnam and Iraq. I may be one of the few people
serving who still believes the Vietnam War was sustainable; it was
important that South Vietnam not fall to the communists." Whereas in
Iraq, "we have tied down our troops in what I called years ago a
When asked how he feels about being mentioned as a possible vice
presidential choice, he says, "I really -- it hasn't percolated up, or
down, to me."
And how is his son the Marine -- the one the President famously
inquired after -- doing in Iraq? "He got extended, and we're hoping he'll
come back by the end of May, first of June."
Just then an aide tells him he's needed ASAP on the floor, because it's
his turn to preside. "Nobody likes to," he says, and shakes his head.
"It eats up your time, and is not terribly productive."