To get elected to the Senate, you have to meet certain requirements. You have to be at least 30 years old, a U.S. citizen for nine years, and a resident of the state you represent. Based on Jim Webb's recent performance, I would like to propose a fourth requirement: you have to be a novelist. If we had 100 novelists in the Senate, the body might finally be able, like Webb, to distinguish fact from fiction.
Webb, a Virginia Democrat who has published six novels, announced in February that he wouldn't run for a second term in the Senate. Never a reticent fellow, he has spent the last few months being even more outspoken than usual. On Afghanistan, East Asian security policy, and Libya, Webb has challenged the fictions of the Obama administration. It's refreshing to hear a critical voice in a body characterized these days by compliant Democrats and posturing Republicans.
Consider Webb's views on the use of military force. Last week, he teamed up with Republican Bob Corker of Tennessee to introduce a resolution calling on the president to justify its military actions in Libya. The administration, according to the War Powers Act, must report to Congress 60 days after initiating a military conflict. More than 80 days have passed since the initial attacks in Libya.
The president has argued that he has abided by the War Powers Act by consulting with Congress. In a stinging speech last week, Webb firmly disagreed: "The president followed no clear historical standard when he unilaterally decided to use force in Libya. Once this action continued beyond his definition of 'days, not weeks' he did not seek the approval of Congress. And while he has discussed this matter with some members of Congress, he clearly has not formally conferred with the legislative branch."
Webb is not just concerned about Libya. He takes issue with the administration’s overall approach to the use of force. “You can’t have 535 commanders in chief," Webb told Politico. "But at the same time, we have become — over the past 10 or 11 years — very blasé about the use of military force around the world. I never thought we would be so blasé as a nation in terms of where we’re going in and dropping bombs and doing these sorts of things."
Equally contrarian has been Webb's position on U.S. force structure in Asia. In mid-May, he teamed up with Carl Levin (D-MI) and John McCain (R-AZ) to issue a statement offering an alternative to the current U.S. plan to build another military base in Okinawa and expand the existing facilities on Guam. The Obama administration has been so hell-bent on creating another U.S. base on Okinawa, over the objections of the vast majority of the citizens of the Japanese island, that it went so far as to precipitate the resignation of Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama when he had the temerity to balk at the economic and political costs.
At a time when the administration has asked the Pentagon to contribute to overall budget cutting, the price tag for the reorganization of U.S. force structure in the Pacific is both enormous (over $27 billion) and, according to a recent GAO report, consistently underestimated. Webb's alternative – moving capabilities from the aging Futenma Marine air base to the nearby Kadena Air Force base – is not ideal, but it's at least a starting point for discussion. But the Obama administration, which has prided itself on its ability to listen, has closed its ears both to Okinawans and the Webb-Levin-McCain initiative.
Then there's Afghanistan. Webb is no pacifist. He did his tour of duty in Vietnam and subsequently supported U.S. involvement in various conflicts. But he centered his campaign for the Senate on opposition to the war in Iraq and famously butted heads with George W. Bush over his son's deployment in that war. Webb's relatively cautious statements about the war in Afghanistan drew ire from his anti-war supporters as recently as three months ago.
Webb is still cautious, essentially backing the administration's timeline. But in his recent questioning at Ryan Crocker's confirmation hearing to be the new U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Webb wondered aloud whether the "clear and secure" strategy the United States is using in Afghanistan has any real effect on an adversary that can pick up and move quickly to another part of the country (or cross a border into another country). And he received a good amount of press for pointing out that "if there is any nation in the world that needs nation-building right now, it is the United States."
(If you agree with Webb, send a message to your elected representative by taking this poll on budget priorities sponsored by the New Priorities Network.)
Next month, the administration will announce the size of its initial troop withdrawal from Afghanistan. It's likely to be modest. But congressional opposition to the war is increasing alongside public opposition. Webb, who will be a free agent after this year, can and should take the lead in the Senate in pushing for a faster withdrawal from the country.
As Webb finishes out his term, he is up against another public official who's taking his leave: Robert Gates. The Pentagon chief, who has taken some bold positions in the past in opposing certain expensive weapons systems, is spending his final days in office fighting a rearguard battle. He has dismissed the idea of a substantial withdrawal from Afghanistan. He has chided European allies for cutting their military budgets. And he has warned of the dangers of the United States making its own deep reductions in Pentagon spending.
While Gates is spreading his soothing fictions, Webb is raising some uncomfortable facts. The Senate will be the poorer for his absence. If Obama manages to eke out a second term, perhaps Webb could return as the head of the Pentagon to preside over the end of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and a true dismantling of the military-industrial complex.