Hillary Rodham Clinton, like many capable politicians, has the ability to arrange her face in such a way as to convey nothing but placidity and benign pity when confronted by a hostile or unpleasant comment. On occasion, though, when her benevolence or, worse, her honor is questioned, her facial muscles tighten, her lips purse, and her eyes seem to darken. Such was the case at a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee in late January, when Senator Joseph Lieberman, of Connecticut, the committee’s army of one—he is the last self-identified Democrat in Congress, and perhaps in America, to express admiration for George W. Bush’s course in Iraq—accused his colleagues (and not only Democrats but those Republicans who are irresolute in their support for the President) of providing encouragement to America’s enemies.
The purpose of the committee meeting was to consider the nomination of Lieutenant General David Petraeus as commander of the ever-more American multinational force in Iraq, but Petraeus was marginal to the proceedings. The real cause of the cross-party and intra-party squabbling was a nonbinding resolution stating that President Bush’s plan to send more soldiers to Iraq was “not in the national interest.” Lieberman opposed the resolution, as did most Republicans. For the senators on the committee who would like to succeed President Bush—Clinton and the ranking Republican, John McCain—the hearing could also be understood as campaigning by other means. Clinton, for example, had been using it to help the electorate forget that she initially endorsed the invasion.
The Iraq war has upended the Senate, as it has all politics. Previously stubborn hawks among the Republicans have become critics of Bush’s war plans. John Warner, one of the committee members, has begun invoking Vietnam when talking about Iraq. His colleague Chuck Hagel, of Nebraska, a Vietnam veteran and a possible Presidential candidate, has become an apostate among many Republicans for his attacks on the President, whose new plan for Iraq he called a “blunder.”
Then, of course, there is Lieberman. He was the lead Democratic co-sponsor of the 2002 Senate resolution authorizing the war, and seems to have had no second thoughts. Indeed, it is difficult to locate a Republican who is quite as sunny about Iraq’s future as Joe Lieberman is. Even McCain, who supports the President’s new plan, is openly frustrated with the Administration’s prosecution of the war, and has been especially critical of Vice-President Dick Cheney; Lieberman won’t criticize anyone involved but the comprehensively discredited former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
Iraq is the reason that Lieberman calls himself an “independent Democrat.” Democratic voters in Connecticut abandoned him in last year’s primary, favoring the antiwar candidate Ned Lamont. Lieberman ran as an independent, and beat the ineffectual Lamont in the general election in large part because Republicans voted for him. In the campaign, Lieberman said that he would join the Democratic caucus if elected, and his victory was the deciding one that gave the Democrats control of the Senate. But he told me recently that his attachment to the Party is based in some measure on sentiment, and should not necessarily be thought of as eternal.
“A lot of Democrats are essentially pacifists and somewhat isolationist,” he told me. He had particular problems with Senator Edward Kennedy’s proposal to deny the President funding for a troop surge, and with an idea recently raised by the senior senator from Connecticut, Christopher Dodd, to cap the number of American soldiers in Iraq. Lieberman was not willing to say whether he would remain a Democrat if the Party cut off funding for the war. “That would be stunning to me,” he said. “And very hurtful. And I’d be deeply affected by it. Let’s put it that way.”
Lieberman’s Democratic colleagues know that if he switched parties they would lose their majority, and so they tend to indulge him, unless they are speaking to reporters off the record. Even when Lieberman defends Bush, which is often, his colleagues avoid criticizing him in public—except when it becomes a bit too much, as it did, apparently, for Hillary Clinton.
Lieberman, after reviewing Petraeus’s testimony, said, “You have also said that you fear that there would be disastrous consequences for Iraq, for the region, for the world economy, for the United States in the war on terrorism if we exit Iraq prematurely.”
“Correct, sir,” the General replied.
Lieberman asked what effect the resolution would have “on our enemies in Iraq.”
Petraeus said that, as a soldier, he had put himself “in harm’s way” to protect the right to free speech, but added, “A commander in such an endeavor would obviously like the enemy to feel that there’s no hope.”
Lieberman, fortified by this response, said, “A Senate-passed resolution of disapproval for this new strategy in Iraq would give the enemy some encouragement, some feeling that—well, some clear expression that the American people were divided.”
“That’s correct, sir,” Petraeus said.
In that case, Lieberman said, he would “make a plea” to his colleagues on Petraeus’s behalf to defeat it. “If, God forbid, you are unable to succeed, then there will be plenty of time for the resolutions of disapproval.”
As Lieberman spoke, Clinton’s mask of equanimity seemed to slip for a moment, until she could assimilate the idea that Lieberman had, in essence, accused the Democratic Party of encouraging America’s enemies.
When it was her turn to respond, Clinton spoke with heat: “I very sincerely but wholeheartedly disagree with those who are trying to once again up the rhetoric about our position in Iraq instead of taking a hard look about what will actually, on the ground, change the behavior and actions of this Iraqi government.” What she wanted, she said, was “to send a very clear message to the Iraqi government that they cannot rely on the blood and treasure of America any longer.”
Then she delivered a polite rebuke to Lieberman, saying that she rejected the idea put forward by her “friends on the panel who think that statements of disapproval are somehow going to undermine our effort, when I think they will send the clearest message.” (Last week, Democrats agreed to a milder, compromise resolution, sponsored by the Republican Warner; Lieberman still opposed it.)
Three days after the hearing, I went to see Lieberman in his office. He was cheerful and easygoing and more convinced than usual of the essential rightness of his vision. I asked him if he thought that Democrats who voted for the resolution would truly be giving encouragement to the enemy. “The enemy believes—Ahmadinejad has said this repeatedly—that we don’t have the will anymore for a long battle,” he said, referring to the President of Iran.
When I asked him if he understood why Hillary Clinton might have reacted the way she did, he said, “I can’t explain why she did that.” Then he shook his head, apparently in sorrow.
Lieberman, who was the Democrats’ nominee for Vice-President in 2000, clearly believes that he owes his party nothing. Only five Senate Democrats campaigned for him in last year’s general election, and he has said that he will not necessarily support the next Democratic nominee for President. Dodd, who recently launched a campaign for the Democratic nomination—one that is seen as semi-quixotic, even though he has more experience than Clinton, Barack Obama, or John Edwards—certainly cannot count on Lieberman’s support. Their friendship was ruptured when Dodd campaigned for Lamont in the Senate election last year.
Iraq has tested several relationships in the Senate. McCain and Carl Levin, the Armed Services Committee’s Democratic chairman, have taken to bickering in public and on occasion seem unwilling to even look at each other. At one hearing, Levin asked for a review of certain benchmarks agreed to by the Iraqi government. McCain said, “Well, if you want to look back, that’s fine, Mr. Chairman. But the fact is, I’m trying to look forward. I’m trying to stop from sending the wrong message to the men and women who are going to be at risk, some of whom are going to die, that we disapprove of their mission.” The exchange continued:
LEVIN: According to the public-opinion polls, a significant amount of the troops that are there want us to change the direction in Iraq. So it’s not us sending the wrong message; the troops themselves and their families have indicated very strongly in large numbers that the message that they want to get to the Iraqis is get on with their own government, get on with their own nation. So we’re going to call—
MCCAIN: Mr. Chairman, I think I’m familiar with the sentiment of many of the troops. And the fact is, they want to win.
LEVIN: We all want—
MCCAIN: And that’s what they want, and that’s why we’re changing the strategy, Mr. Chairman. And I’m sorry you don’t support the strategy.
LEVIN: Well, it’s a strategy which has failed.
But few relationships are as unhappy as the one between Connecticut’s two senators. A wall in Lieberman’s office is covered with photographs of the two men together. One is inscribed, by Dodd, “To Joe, our first appearance together as Senators! You obviously have forgotten the first rule of a junior senator. They should be seen and not heard!” Lieberman has, in past years, described Dodd as his “best friend” in the Senate. When I asked him if this was still true, his eyes narrowed, and he said, “I have so many good friends in the Senate. John McCain is a very good friend.”
These days, most of Lieberman’s closest friends in the Senate are Republicans. One of them is the Maine Republican Susan Collins. “In the lame-duck session right after the election, I went up to him on the floor of the Senate and gave him a kiss and welcomed him back,” Collins said. “And one reason I did this was that his Democratic colleagues didn’t rush over. I think they were worried about the reaction they would get from him. Some of them were embarrassed. Here he is, he’s back. And he’s the kingmaker, he holds their fate in his hands. How ironic is that?”
Lieberman says that he does, at times, feel isolated. He is a liberal on social policy and a conservative on defense, in the bygone style of the late Senator Henry (Scoop) Jackson. “I’m the Lorax,” he said. “I’m saving that one tree.”
In another conversation, he told me that he was reading “America Alone,” a book by the conservative commentator Mark Steyn, which argues that Europe is succumbing, demographically and culturally, to an onslaught by Islam, leaving America friendless in its confrontation with Islamic extremism.
“The thing I quote most from it is the power of demographics, in Europe particularly,” Lieberman said. “That’s what struck me the most. But the other part is a kind of confirmation of what I know and what I’ve read elsewhere, which is that Islamist extremism has an ideology, and it’s expansionist, it’s an aggressive ideology. And the title I took to mean that we Americans will have ultimate responsibility for stopping this expansionism.”
Lieberman likes expressions of American power. A few years ago, I was in a movie theatre in Washington when I noticed Lieberman and his wife, Hadassah, a few seats down. The film was “Behind Enemy Lines,” in which Owen Wilson plays a U.S. pilot shot down in Bosnia. Whenever the American military scored an onscreen hit, Lieberman pumped his fist and said, “Yeah!” and “All right!”
I asked him if Steyn’s book appeals to him in part because he feels alone.
“Well, I’m surprisingly alone at this moment on the question of Iraq,” he said. “Which is to say, I’m surprised that I’m alone. But I do believe that on the larger question of Islamist extremism there are a lot of others in the Democratic Party who see that as well.” He went on, “One part of my sense of mission coming out of last year is to make this case within the Democratic Party, to be strong.”
To Democrats, Lieberman’s most vexing quality is not his early support for the war—Clinton, Dodd, and Edwards, among other senators, voted for the Iraq-war resolution in 2002. It is that no development—not the absence of weapons of mass destruction, or the Administration’s innumerable and well-documented mistakes in post-invasion Iraq—has lessened his admiration for President Bush or his belief that the war has aided America in its fight against Islamic terrorism.
“I’ve had a lot of disappointments along the way here,” Lieberman said. “So why do I trust President Bush in spite of the mistakes that were made, consequential mistakes? Because having watched him, having talked to him, I believe that he understands the life-and-death struggle we are in with the most deadly and unconventional enemy, Islamic extremism. And that he has shown himself, notwithstanding all these mistakes, willing to go forward with what he believes is right for the security of the country, regardless of what it has done to his popularity.”
“Isn’t President Bush responsible for losing this war?” I asked.
“Insofar as you have to hold the Chief Executive accountable, he bears responsibility for the mistakes that were made on his watch,” Lieberman said. “But I think he understands that now. And, look, Rumsfeld is no longer there. Gates”—Robert Gates, the new Secretary of Defense—“is there. There are a lot of changes happening. We’ve got a totally new plan for how to succeed in Iraq.”
Lieberman is an Orthodox Jew who takes his faith seriously, but there are times when he seems to wander across the line that separates piety from sanctimony. One such moment came on January 14th, when he appeared with Chuck Hagel on “Meet the Press.” Lieberman attacked senators who were critical of the President—including, presumably, Hagel—and said that his children and grandchildren would be imperilled by the unchecked rise of Islamic fundamentalism. “That’s why I want to do everything I can to win in Iraq,” he said. “And I think that’s what my oath of office requires me to do.”
Hagel became livid. “I am not, nor [is] any member of Congress that I’m aware of . . . advocating defeat,” Hagel said. “That’s ridiculous, and I’m offended that any responsible member of Congress or anyone else would even suggest such a thing. Senator Lieberman talks about his children and grandchildren. We all have children and grandchildren. He doesn’t have a market on that.”
McCain told me that one explanation for Lieberman’s obdurate support for the President was politics. Lieberman, he implied, had invested too much in his advocacy of the war to back away now. “It might be that Joe was assaulted so harshly in the campaign that he felt that if he showed any chink in his armor, people would exploit it,” he said. “You could do the commercial yourself.” He added, “I think Joe has been critical. But you know, he’s a much nicer man than I am, so maybe it’s just that.”
Christopher Dodd offered another perspective. A popular figure in the Senate who has the buoyancy of a natural politician, Dodd portrayed Lieberman as the last of the uncomplicated neoconservatives.
“I think there was this assumption that democracy was just waiting to blossom,” Dodd said of Iraq. “Let’s assume the President believed this, that it wouldn’t take much to produce a democratic society in Iraq. I’m not opposed to that, and I think that may happen, but the idea that you could go from where they were was a leap of faith, and many took that leap. Joe took that leap. He thought this was one way to bring stability in the region.”
Dodd went on, “I’m in the Brent Scowcroft school, the world as it is.” Once, this would have been a surprising statement, particularly to Brent Scowcroft, who might be called a Republican fatalist. But Dodd said that the last four years had been “sobering” for him. “I’d love to see a democratic Middle East,” he said. “But you’ve got to be a coherent society before you can be a democracy.” In the absence of weapons of mass destruction, “If you came to the country and said, ‘This guy’s a bad guy, we want to invade his country,’ I could not justify the loss of three thousand Americans for this, as much as I disliked Saddam.”
I asked Dodd if he has spoken to any other senators who are as optimistic as Lieberman is about Iraq. “I’ll tell you, I bet this has happened fifteen times in the last few days—conservative Republicans have said to me that they’ve told the White House that this is the last vote you’re going to get out of them, a vote against the Iraq resolution,” Dodd said. “They’re angry, and they sure don’t believe the new plan is going to work.”
Neither Lieberman nor Dodd was eager to discuss the unravelling of their relationship, in particular its most painful episodes: Dodd’s decision to endorse Lamont the morning after the Lieberman primary defeat, and his appearance in a Lamont television advertisement, in which he said, “People want different leadership in Washington.”
Lieberman’s friends were, of course, upset by Dodd’s infidelity. “I found that whole thing almost unbelievable,” Warren Rudman, the former New Hampshire senator, told me. “I can’t imagine why Chris Dodd did that.”
Dodd justifies his endorsement of Lamont as one of principle over friendship. “I’m the senior Democrat in the state,” he said. “What do I tell a twenty-year-old, what do I tell someone who wants to be a Democrat and join the process? ‘I’m sorry, the primary doesn’t count, it doesn’t make a difference’? It was painful. I didn’t like it. But I wasn’t going to turn around and tell people this doesn’t mean anything.” Dodd told me that the two still talk on the Senate floor. “Joe just said to me the other day, ‘I disagree with you on this, but at least you’re trying to get something done.’ ”
Another explanation for his endorsement could be deduced from Dodd’s appearance last month in Dover, New Hampshire. Dodd’s campaign for President is not a juggernaut—he jokes that he is currently competing with the margin of error in most polls. (“Is the motorcade ready?” he called out to me from his S.U.V. in Dover. The motorcade consisted of my rented Chevrolet.) But Dodd believes that it is still possible for a New England liberal (he prefers the word “progressive”) to succeed in national politics, particularly when the country is turning decisively against the war. Dodd wants a binding resolution to stop the President’s Iraq buildup, even though such a measure would almost certainly fail. “There’s nothing wrong with losing a vote if you’re making a point that people want us to make,” he said. “Things are going to get a lot harder in the next month or two. If we’re going to stop this, we have to stop it before the new troops get to Iraq. You’re not going to cut off their funds once they’re there. The window is closing. The country is way ahead of the Senate on this.”
Still, even Dodd, with his antiwar, anti-Lieberman credentials, seemed unprepared for the brash liberalism on display in Dover. At one point, he told a crowd of more than a hundred Democrats, “I’m a strong advocate, by the way, that military recruiters ought to be allowed on the campuses of the United States. If a corporation that can violate the law can recruit, then the Army, the Navy, the Air Force ought to be able to recruit good people.” This statement was met with near-silence. Finally, Dodd said, “It’s O.K. to applaud for that.” Few did.
Later, a leader of the local Strafford County Democrats, Tim Ashwell, said, “This is a very antiwar community.” I asked him about Lieberman, and his hapless 2004 campaign for the Democratic Presidential nomination; Lieberman placed fifth in the New Hampshire primary, and dropped out of the race soon after. Ashwell didn’t find that surprising. “People don’t think of Lieberman as a Democrat,” he said.