Henrik Ibsen’s play “An Enemy of the People,” currently showing at Washington, D.C.’s Shakespeare Theatre, contains a devastating portrait of a political moderate, the kind of image now being projected onto embattled Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn.
In the play, a character named Aslaksen prates about believing in “discreet moderation ... and moderate discretion.” At first, he promises to back the protagonist, Dr. Stockman, who has discovered that their town’s water pipes and public baths – crucial to the economy – are poisoned with pollution.
But when Aslaksen discovers that repairing the system will force taxes to be raised, he turns on the doctor and backs the town’s mayor, a character who echoes Vice President Cheney, in keeping the situation secret.
Shays, the quintessential moderate Republican, is now being accused by Democrats and the media of shifting his position on Iraq out of similar expediency because he is under threat of losing his House seat.
After his August visit to Iraq, his 14th, Shays announced he now favors a timetable for withdrawing U.S. forces – a reversal of his previous stance and a seeming abandonment of President Bush, who is deeply unpopular in Connecticut.
Shays’ Democratic opponent, Diane Farrell, is seeking to tie Shays to Bush and the war; she described his shift as “an election-year conversion.” Shays added to his woes with an agonized appearance at a reporters’ breakfast sponsored by The Christian Science Monitor last week during which he said Bush “has no credibility” on the war.
After attending that breakfast and interviewing Shays for almost two hours, I’m convinced he’s no Aslaksen; I believe he genuinely wants to win the war, not simply withdraw U.S. troops, and that he thinks the Iraqi government needs to face deadlines for achieving its goals.
As Shays emphasizes, his proposed timetable is not identical to those being put forward by many Democrats. It isn’t based on a certain date, but rather on the achievement of administration goals for training adequate numbers of Iraqi security forces.
Moreover, even though Shays says that both he and Bush lost credibility because weapons of mass destruction were not found in Iraq, I do think Shays has credibility as one of the most diligent Members of Congress in providing oversight of Iraq operations and the war on terror.
As chairman of the House Government Reform subcommittee on national security, Shays has held more than 100 hearings on terrorist threats since March 1999 – well before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks – and has been to Iraq more than any other Member, often traveling without U.S. government escorts or approval.
He supported the war and still believes it is “a noble mission,” along with Bush’s vision of spreading democracy in the Middle East. At the same time, he has delivered consistent warnings – albeit mostly in private, he admits – about failings in administration policy.
After his first visit to Iraq in April 2003, he said, he urged that U.S. forces bring on more Arabic speakers so they could connect with Iraqis. An ex-Peace Corps volunteer, he traveled with nongovernmental aid groups and heard from their Iraqi employees the complaint that U.S. forces purposely had allowed looting in the aftermath of the war.
He said he argued that it was a mistake to disband the Iraqi army and police forces, whose lower-level personnel could have been employed to guard hospitals and other facilities.
FBI agents in Iraq told him – and he told Bush – that U.S. forces should be dismantling roadside bombs to trace their manufacturers instead of exploding them. He says he also urged the Pentagon to move faster in armoring Humvees and trucks.
After the Iraqi government began recruiting police, he warned U.S. officials, on the basis of a staffer’s visit to a training facility, that the police were being infiltrated by militias loyal to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
Shays said U.S. deadlines were crucial in getting Iraq to form a provisional government, write a draft constitution and hold elections in 2005. Then, he said, it took more than four months to form a government, and “since January, nothing has happened” to reconcile sectarian groups, write a final constitution and hold provincial elections.
“It’s a slow death,” he told me. He wants to force Iraqi reform both because he’s afraid Americans are losing the will to see the mission through and because Iraq is heading for civil war. Echoing Bush, he said that U.S. defeat in Iraq will be a victory for radical Islamic terrorism.
In Ibsen’s play, which is well worth seeing, the town’s mayor covers up the truth about pollution because “without moral authority I am powerless to direct public affairs for what I judge is the common good.” Shays thinks the administration should be admitting its mistakes to regain credibility.
The truth-telling doctor in the play becomes the enemy of the people. He gives up on convincing anyone else and declares that “the strongest man in the world is he who stands most alone.” Shays seems to fear that Bush is becoming like the doctor. Shays said he is willing to lose his seat over Iraq, but clearly he would rather win both contests.
(Morton Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill.)
Copyright 2006, Roll Call Newspaper
Distributed by Newspaper Enterprise Assn.