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Old Warrior in the Line of Fire

5 minute read
Massimo Calabresi

John Warner, with his lantern jaw, double-breasted suits and stentorian voice, has always looked the part of distinguished Senator. But for much of his three decades in the Senate, his actual record as a lawmaker was a ledger of modest and narrow accomplishments, mostly related to defense bills. In the past five years, however, the Republican has become one of the Senate’s most influential members, thanks to a readiness to strike compromises on a host of high-profile issues ranging from co-sponsoring the antitorture Detainee Treatment Act of 2005 to anchoring the “Gang of 14” bipartisan moderates who pledged to cooperate on judicial nominees.

Now Warner, 79, is a key figure once again, this time in the debate on the war in Iraq. The Senate is struggling to respond to popular discontent with President Bush’s plan to send 21,500 more U.S. troops to Iraq. Democrats have introduced a resolution criticizing the plan and opposing the President outright. Senator John McCain of Arizona has proposed a countervailing resolution that tacitly backs the surge of troops. Neither captures the cautiously antisurge consensus that many Senators are seeking, which puts the spotlight on Warner, a former Secretary of the Navy and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, who has introduced a bipartisan resolution with a third approach: oppose the surge and prod Bush to follow the diplomacy-heavy recommendations of the Iraq Study Group.

The fight over resolutions may seem symbolic–President Bush has insisted the surge will proceed regardless of what the Senate says–but there are important political consequences to Warner’s battle. The future of both parties, in 2008 and beyond, may hinge on their ability to strike the right chord on Iraq, defiant of the President yet tough-minded enough to reassure voters for whom national security is still a major issue.

Supporters say Warner simply wants to protect the U.S. military by getting the Iraq mission onto a solid bipartisan footing. But more skeptical colleagues point out that Warner and many of the 20 other Senate Republicans up for re-election in 2008 need to actively distance themselves from Bush on Iraq not only to keep their own jobs but also to hold the total of 41 seats they need to filibuster Democratic initiatives. Even so, some Democrats fear that Warner, regardless of his motives, might buckle under White House pressure. He held his own on the Detainee Treatment Act in 2005 but backed down last September during a confrontation with the White House over Bush’s military tribunals for terrorist suspects. The left has not forgotten. “Trying to know exactly what Warner is up to is like reading the proverbial entrails of goats,” says a senior Senate Democratic aide.

Warner, a World War II veteran, is hard to read perhaps because he is genuinely torn. A staunch defender of the military who has long deferred to the Commander in Chief, his deference is waning on the Iraq war. “The reason I’m into this situation so deeply is that I feel that the American citizens have given so generously with their sons and daughters,” he says. “Have we not fulfilled our commitment to the Iraqi people?”

Warner’s spacious office is filled with props: an arm from Saddam Hussein’s chair, World War I medals awarded to Warner’s father, a copy of the resolution Warner wrote authorizing the first Gulf War. History is never far from Warner’s mind. “The decisions I’m making on this particular issue are among the most important I’ve made in 29 years in this institution,” he says.

But this is the same man who for much of his career was more famous for being a former husband of Elizabeth Taylor’s than for being a Senator. Will he have the muscle to build a coalition on the most divisive issue of his time? Last November’s midterm elections could help. Democrats eager to keep political momentum may accept the softer but still critical language in Warner’s resolution. Republicans feeling the pressure of voters’ anger over Iraq can support his bill under the shelter of his seniority and military expertise. Warner so far has 11 co-sponsors, five of them from his party; in all, he needs 11 G.O.P. votes to override a possible filibuster.

Democrats may still prefer to vote for a harsher antiwar resolution in the hopes of goading Republicans into a politically risky filibuster. For its part, the White House is resisting a compromise, working to repeat the success it had in watering down Warner’s military-tribunals bill. When I told Warner some Democrats are worried that this might happen again, he said, “There is a case history out there that justifies that concern.” He closed his eyes, leaned back in his chair and recalled the intense, all-day negotiations last autumn in which he was outmaneuvered by National Security Adviser Steven Hadley. “The full flavor of what we had set out to do, it was by no means all lost, but …” and his voice trailed off. The political stakes are much higher this time. And as Warner has learned, to make a real mark on Capitol Hill, it’s not enough to simply look strong. You have to be strong as well.

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