USA Today has an interesting piece on Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN)’s recent trip to Ramadi, Iraq the provincial capital of al-Anbar province and one of the former centers of the insurgency in Iraq. What Ellison has to say is extremely interesting, especially coming from an anti-war Democrat:
Ellison said that local leaders in Ramadi told him of how they partnered with U.S. and Iraqi military officials to virtually rid al-Qaeda from the city. Although the lawmakers had to travel in flak vests and helmets, “we did see people walking around the streets of Ramadi, going back and forth to the market.”
There have been fewer anti-U.S. sermons as the violence has been reduced, Ellison said, and religious leaders meet regularly with U.S. military officials.
“The success in Ramadi is not just because of bombs and bullets, but because the U.S. and Iraqi military and the Iraqi police are partnering with the tribal leadership and the religious leadership,” he said. “So they’re not trying to just bomb people into submission. What they’re doing is respecting the people, giving the people some control over their own lives.”
Ellison said he was particularly impressed watching Maj. Gen. Walter Gaskin, U.S. commander in the Anbar province, greeting people with “as-salama aleikum,” meaning peace be upon you.
“And they would respond back with smiles and waves,” Ellison said. “I don’t want to overplay it. There were no flowers. There was no clapping. There was no parade. But there was a general level of respect and calm that I thought was good.”
If Rep. Ellison is saying something good about the progress in Iraq, that means a great deal. He’s still advocating for a withdrawal timetable, but has said that he’s willing to give the generals on the ground more flexibility as to when that timetable should be. Given that Ellison is the first Muslim in Congress and a representative of the extremely liberal Fifth District, to have him go to Iraq and say that real progress is being made is something of a watershed.
Rep. Ellison has a chance to be a true leader in the House — if he genuinely wants to ensure that the Iraqi people are not abandoned, he has to be willing to stand with the American troops who are putting their lives on the line to help the Iraqis. That means that he may have to stand against the withdrawal-at-any-cost caucus within his own party and in his own district.
What is going on in Iraq is much more complicated than the simpleminded view given to the American people by the mainstream media — as Rep. Ellison noticed during his trip to Ramadi. Much of what our troops are doing in Iraq is the kind of humanitarian work that is necessary towards restoring Iraq’s shattered infrastructure and building a new sense of civil society in Iraq. The Iraqi people don’t hate us — they understand why we’re in Iraq and that we want to leave as soon as possible. What they fear the most is not that we’re there, but that our absence will widen this already terrible conflict.
Rep. Ellison’s comments are crucial towards forging a new bipartisan consensus on Iraq: neither side wants to stay in Iraq any longer than necessary. However, those of us who understand what the consequences of withdrawal would be do not want to leave Iraq in a state of chaos, which would be the inevitable result of a premature withdrawal. Iraq’s civil institutions and society have to be resilient enough to stand on their own, or else all we have done is thrown Iraq to the wolves.
Rep. Ellison has an opportunity to stand with the people of Iraq and allow the US to finish what we started. If he wishes to be a voice for the Muslim world in the House, this is his chance. There are 26 million people in Iraq whose fates depend largely on what we do in the next few months — they need a voice in Congress willing to stand for them and ensure that they are not forgotten for partisan reasons.
To see someone who represents the liberal wing of the Democratic Party willing to look at the situation in Iraq with new eyes is heartening. However, Rep. Ellison must be willing to have the political courage to do what is right in Iraq, not what is popular.