Combat Veterans Grade Senators on Iraq War Votes

By Kevin Mooney | October 23, 2008 | 7:08 PM EDT

A U.S. soldier of the Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD) team walks through munitions at a joint U.S.-Iraqi army base in Sadr City, Baghdad, Iraq, on Tuesday, Oct. 21, 2008. The munitions were seized by the U.S. army and Iraqi security forces during recent operations in the Shiite enclave of Sadr city. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed)

(CNSNews.com) - U.S. senators who failed to support the war in Iraq at critical moments have been named and graded by combat veterans for casting votes that would have, in retrospect, short-circuited a counter-insurgency campaign that is now praised by leaders in both parties.
 
The Vets for Freedom group, or VFF, examined the key votes that affected the war in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other counter-terrorism efforts by the 100 members of the Senate. The group then issued a report card based on the percentage of times a particular senator voted in accordance with the organization’s position.
 
The VFF has 20,000 members – combat veterans who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan – and more than 44 chapters nationwide. It claims to be the largest organization of its kind.
 
According to the VFF report card, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), for example, received a failing grade. Kerry, the Democratic nominee for president in 2004, voted in favor of Senate Amendment 4320 to the Defense Authorization Act for 2007, which was opposed by the VFF.
That amendment would have effectively precluded the "surge," which started in January 2007 and peaked in May/June 2007 -- following the surge, casualties consistently dropped, the use of IEDs dropped, and political progress occurred. Today, many Democratic and most Republican leaders admit that the surge was largely successful in its goals.

Kerry also voted against Senate Amendment 2934 as part the Defense Authorization Act of 2008. This amendment included an expression of support for Army General David Petraeus.
 
Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), the Senate majority leader, received an F as well. Reid also voted in favor of Senate Amendment 4320 and against Senate Amendment 2934, putting him at odds with the VFF criteria.
 
Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), the Democratic vice presidential nominee in 2000, received an A- on the report card. Lieberman voted down Senate Amendment 4320 and voted in favor of Senate Amendment 2934, putting him in sync with the VFF positions.
 
Lieberman also voted against Senate Amendment 2022 to the National Defense Act of 2008, which would restore Habeas Corpus to non-citizens detained for terrorist acts.
 
Overall, the VFF report card showed that the 110th Congress was divided along partisan lines on 28 key votes that affected ongoing missions in Iraq, Afghanistan and the larger global war on terror.
 
For example, the VFF opposed Senate Amendment 4320 to Senate bill 2766, the Defense Authorization Act for 2007, which was defeated (60 to 39) in June 2006. This amendment called for a “phased redeployment of U.S. troops” that would have prevented the surge from being implemented.
 
Another crucial vote identified in the report was Senate Amendment 2898 to H.R. 1585 in the Defense Authorization Act for 2008.
 
“This amendment was the closest that Congress came to losing the war in Iraq,” the report card states. “Senators who voted in favor of this amendment were voting to set a timeline for retreat, which would have resulted in the U.S. losing the war in Iraq.”
 
While the grades largely fell along political party lines, with A and A- grades going largely to Republicans, there were exceptions.
 
Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), for example, received an F. Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Me.) also got an F, and her colleague, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Me.) was given a C-minus. Every single Democratic senator received a failing mark.
 
Hagel co-sponsored Senate Amendment 2032 attached to the National Defense Act for 2008 with Sen. Snowe, which the VFF opposed.
 
That amendment called for limiting the length of deployment for U.S. forces in Iraq. Collins, on the other hand, opposed Hagel’s amendment.
 
CNSNews.com contacted the offices of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), and Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), as well as the offices of Hagel, Snowe and Collins. But neither office had responded as this story went to press.
 
However, Jessica Smith, a press secretary for Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) did respond by e-mail.
 
“There is absolutely nothing credible about a report that assigns an F rating to decorated Vietnam veteran Jim Webb, who just passed the most sweeping expansion of veterans’ benefits since WWII,” she wrote. 
 
There were three key factors the VFF looked at when evaluating various senators and their commitment to Iraq: funding, timetables and “morale changers.” The political class on Capitol Hill came dangerously close to abandoning the war effort even as U.S. troops were succeeding on the battlefield, Captain Pete Hegseth, chairman of VFF told CNSNews.com in an interview.
 
Hegseth served with the 101st Airborne Division in Iraq in 2005 and part of 2006 in Samarra, a city in the Salahuddin Province of Iraq.
 
The Democratic leadership came close to ending funding and setting time-tables in September 2007, when Army General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker testified before lawmakers on the initial results of the surge strategy, said Hegseth.
 
The early part of 2007 was a challenging moment for supporters of the war in Iraq because U.S. casualties were rising as the U.S. went on the offensive against al Qaeda, Hegseth said.
 
At that time, the VFF mobilized its efforts on Capitol Hill to convince policymakers they should wait until the general and ambassador had the opportunity to report back about the surge before voting against continued military operations, Hegseth argued.
 
“Our U.S. casualties were at an all-time high in those earlier months because we were pushing into these nasty neighborhoods and going on the offensive to clear out al Qaeda and other terrorists,” he explained.
 
“So it was a tough time to be an advocate for the war and it was easy for opponents to say the surge was not working because casualties were increasing,” he said. “But we always held the long-view that you’re going to see an increase before there is a drop in casualties because this is what happens when you launch a counter-offensive.”
 
A CNSNews.com database of casualties -- reaching back to March of 2003 when the Iraq war began -- shows U.S casualties spiked in May 2007 before dropping in subsequent months. By August, combat-related casualties were occurring at a lower rate, compared on a month-to-month basis, than in 2006. In December, there were 14 U.S. combat-related casualties, the fewest at that time for any month in the previous two years.
 
Between August and December 2007, there were 163 combat casualties. By comparison, there were 339 combat casualties in the same five-month period for 2006, a decline of almost 52 percent, the CNSNews.com analysis shows.
 
“The drop in casualties could not have come at a better time politically in September because that was when Petraeus testified and a lot of the metrics were heading in the right direction,” Hegseth noted. “We could make our case and argue that it did not make any sense to simply give up and cede these strategic gains.”
 
Nevertheless, in September 2007 the Democratic leadership in the Senate came within two votes of setting a withdrawal timeline for Iraq with Senate Amendment 2898.
 
“Had this happened, American soldiers, sailors, airman and marines would have come home in defeat,” the VFF report states. “The fragile Iraqi government would have crumbled at the hands of Islamic extremists, giving them a stronghold in the Middle East and a place to base terrorist operations against the United States and our allies. In short, defeat in Iraq would have put the lives of American citizens at risk.”
 
On the question of morale, the VFF supported Senate Amendment 2934, which included a strong statement of support for Gen. Petraeus, and served as a rebuke to the liberal MoveOn.org advertisement in the New York Times that read: “General Petraeus or General Betray Us?”
 
The amendment passed by a vote of 72 to 25 in September 2007.
 
Impacting the Political Class
 
The office of Sen. Collins contacted theVFF and expressed dissatisfaction with the C- grade she received. But the vets were unapologetic.
 
“She was very inconsistent with her voting record,” said Josh Grodin, VFF’s director of government affairs. “Clearly, there were some senators who were just looking out for their own interests.”
 
The interaction with Sen. Collins was instructive, said Hegseth, because it demonstrated how the VFF can affect the political terrain in a way that is helpful to U.S. troops still in the field.
 
“She [Collins] was one of our focal points throughout 2007 because she was hedging her bets with her votes,” Hegseth said. “She was not rock solid on supporting the surge -- she was waivering.”
 
But Collins was the exception and not the rule because almost all of the grades issued were either A’s or F’s. Any effort to reconfigure the calculations to show more modest grades like B’s or C’s would have involved “cooking the books” in a way that did not accurately capture how divided the congress was, Hegseth said.
 
Now that military progress has been acknowledged on both sides of the congressional aisle, some war critics now say there has been insufficient political progress. But this argument no longer squares with reality in light of recent developments in Hegseth’s view. Most of the benchmarks set for the Iraqi parliament by Congress have now been meet, and control of most provinces has been transferred from U.S. forces to local Iraqi officials, he said.

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