Make no mistake about it: There were four people on the Democrats' panel Monday night in Chapel Hill talking about the mess in Iraq, but it was Congressman David Price, D-Chapel Hill, who was alone on the hot seat.
Price has been taking a pounding from the Democratic left for his measured position on the war, which in broad strokes is that it's been a colossal blunder (and he was against it all along), but now that we're there, we can't just leave or things will get worse.
That this falls short of what many of his 4th District constituents want from him was apparent again Monday, if only from the mere fact that almost 800 of them came to the Chapel Hill High School auditorium to hear him debate the other panelists, and himself, about what Democrats should be doing about the war right now.
That, and the fact that his audience--armed with green sheets of paper to wave when they agreed with a speaker--were a sea of green whenever ex-CIA analyst Ray McGovern, of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity, or UNC history professor Sarah Shields, made the case for ending the war on a timetable that starts today.
Price, meanwhile, got his share of green for denouncing the war, but very little of it for his view that the United States can somehow improve the eventual outcome in Iraq by staying awhile longer (but not for a "prolonged" period) and by adopting a better set of tactics--an "exit strategy," he termed it--that he described in only the most general way.
One thing he was specific about, however: The strategy should not include a timetable for withdrawal.
This confused listeners like the moderator, Orange County Democratic chair Ray Sanders, who wondered aloud whether Price was describing an exit strategy "that says we will be gone," or one that says "we may not be gone" unless Iraq is stable.
There are murmurings in Chapel Hill of a primary challenge to Price, whose district is solidly Democratic.
That prospect, in fact, seemed to be foremost in his mind as he argued--in his opening remarks, and again in his summation--for party unity despite differences on the war.
The only way to actually end the war, as opposed to just demanding an end to it, Price says, is to defeat George Bush and the Republicans in the 2006 elections. So Democrats should "formulate our own views with integrity," but also "find common ground" with others in the party who differ.
"We need regime change," Price said. "And the Democratic party is a critical vehicle for [that] change."
Actually, Price's rhetoric on the war, if not the substance of his position, has changed markedly since he was last heard in public about it in August. (See "Iraq'd," indyweek.com/durham/2005-08-17/citizen.html.) Then, in a much-discussed meeting at Binkley Baptist Church, he said the United States--past mistakes notwithstanding--should "put forward a strategy for success" in Iraq and for "moving [it] decisively toward self-defense and self-rule."
But Monday, Price declared that success in Iraq is no longer possible, and "we need to begin leaving Iraq." But he wasn't ready to abandon the idea that our forces can somehow stop the situation from deteriorating further. "We have to ask, how could things be worse, and how do we prevent that?" he also said.
On this point, Duke professor Bruce Jentleson, a foreign policy adviser to the Kerry-Edwards campaign last year, agreed with Price, but Shields and McGovern did not. They think our very presence there is an impediment to progress--not to mention, as Shields did, that our troops are responsible for half to two-thirds of the Iraqi civilian casualties, which are conservatively estimated to be 25,000 dead.
It's not just Iraqis killing each other, Shields pointed out. We're busy destroying whole cities in our misguided attempts to "root out" the insurgents, many of whom are guilty only of having no idea what our troops are ordering them to do--in English.
To applause (the green cards no longer sufficing), Shields insisted that Iraqis are so opposed to our continuing presence that anyone who works for us is seen as a "quisling"--a traitor. "We succeed," she declared, "the longer we stay, only in compromising more and more of the people who could be Iraq's leaders."
Unlike Price, who sees Iraq devolving into three separate, if perhaps loosely connected, states (Kurds, Sunnis, Shia), Shields argued that the three "cohered" in the '80s while fighting Iran and have a strong, secular underpinning that will allow them to hang together again--if we get out of the way.
For his part, McGovern believes Iraq is much worse off than even the left understands, and that a Tet-style offensive--reminiscent of Vietnam--is possible that would challenge the occupation-backed "government" in every part of the country.
If that happens, McGovern said, Bush might ratchet up the war--reason enough, he added, to get out now.
Vietnam, McGovern argued--his remarks clearly aimed at Price--ended when Congress voted to cut off the money for it. But Congress today is nowhere on Iraq, even though two-thirds of the country has turned against the war.
Last month, he said, 300,000 people marched against the war in Washington, but just one member of Congress was there, Georgia Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney. It's time for the Democratic leadership to show some leadership, McGovern said.
Price, who likewise didn't attend the anti-war hearing on Capitol Hill convened by California Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey last month (see "Had enough?" indyweek.com/durham/2005-09-21/cover3.html), conceded that protesters "have achieved what the politicians have not been able to achieve," which is to galvanize public opposition.
But this seemed to him the natural course of events--that activists galvanize and party leaders like him move in their wake. Or so it seemed, as he said again that he would not support the leading anti-war resolution in the House, H.J.RES 55, which calls on the president to announce an exit strategy by the end of 2005 and start implementing it no later than October 2006.
"Exit, we must," said Price. And he added, "I think it's happening. The demand for an exit strategy is growing."