(I thought this was relevant given Webb’s formation of a presidential exploratory committee. – promoted by lowkell)
Hard as it is to believe, the “Draft James Webb” movement began almost exactly 7 years ago, after three of us crazy, completely unrealistic (heh) progressive activist troublemaker (heh) types – Josh Chernila, Lee Diamond, and myself – first sat down with Jim Webb in Rosslyn and decided he needed a bit of encouragement to run for Senate.
Now, Senator Webb is about to leave office, after an eventful 6 years. In addition to his farewell interview to Bill Bartel of the Virginian Pilot, Webb’s office has also published “a 134-page report on his tenure that included details of legislation, diplomatic efforts, timelines, photos and supportive news stories and editorials, as well as Webb’s opinion columns.”
I thought it would be an interesting exercise, if nothing else, to go through this report and provide my own assessment of how I think Webb did. In particular, I’m going to focus on Webb’s three main themes: 1) Re-orienting America’s Foreign and National Security Policies; 2) Promoting Economic Fairness and Social Justice; and 3) Government Accountability and Balance of Powers. I’ll also have a few thoughts on how Webb did from a purely political point of view, and regarding other important issues for Virginia and the nation.
1. Re-orienting America’s Foreign and National Security Policies
Of course, one Senator can only do so much, but Jim Webb clearly played a significant role in attempting to influence U.S. foreign policy the past 6 years. With regard to Iraq, Webb “strongly supported the removal of our military forces from Iraq at the end of 2011.” Webb, of course, had opposed the Iraq War, not because he’s a pacifist, which he most certainly is not (e.g., to this day he supports the Vietnam War), but because he thought it was a strategic mistake. Among other things, Webb believed that the invasion and occupation of Iraq would get us bogged down as an “occupying force in the middle of sectarian violence,” while “[empowering] Iran in the process,” and distracting us from our focus and energies on the war against Al Qaeda. On all these fronts, Webb turned out to be correct, and in the end his views largely prevailed, although not in time to save us from many of the dangers Webb had warned against. Still, on this count, Webb has to be seen making a significant contribution with his highly credible and well-reasoned critiques, and we all owe him thanks for that.
As for Afghanistan, Senator Webb did exactly the right thing: “consistently asked administration officials to clarify the ultimate objective of our military engagement and costly nation building programs there and to set clear parameters that would allow American withdrawal from combat in that country.” Webb also “warned against committing the United States to long-term security agreements with Afghanistan…without the full participation of Congress.” More broadly, Webb argued that the “military’s approach to Afghanistan and Iraq was not a workable model for combating international terrorism in the future, stating that the best way to address international terrorism is through ‘mobility and maneuverability.'” On all these counts, I’d say that Webb was right on, and again I thank him for his efforts. How successful those efforts were, just as in Iraq, are another story, but again, I’d argue that there’s only so much one U.S. Senator can do.
One of Webb’s most important contributions, but probably least heralded, has to do with the U.S. shift in focus towards East and Southeast Asia. Webb’s tremendous knowledge of/experience with this part of the world was a major asset, and he used it “to strengthen relations and demonstrate America’s commitments to the region…[as] the essential balancing force.” Webb’s overarching strategic vision for this region centered on his long-held view that China poses a military threat as part of that country’s “larger strategic agenda” and desire to “expand its territory.” Personally, I’ve always felt that Webb’s views on China were somewhat exaggerated and even a bit obsessive, but there’s no question that Webb made a contribution towards strengthening the strategic balance of power in the Asia/Pacific region, including with his groundbreaking efforts to bring Burma/Myanmar “back into the world community.”
Webb also points with obvious pride to his efforts on realigning U.S. military basing in East Asia, aiming to “ensure a strong U.S. presence in the region while reducing costs and impacts on local communities.” Certainly, Webb brought a unique mix of knowledge, experience, and credibility to this effort, and it clearly paid off.
One area of Webb’s work I actually wasn’t aware of relates to his efforts at protecting the Mekong River Basin from “potentially catastrophic consequences” – environmental and otherwise – of dam building on the river, by China and others. I’m not sure why this wasn’t better publicized, but great work by Jim Webb on that front nonetheless!
Related to national security and foreign policy, but also to the goals of social justice and economic fairness, were Webb’s efforts on behalf of U.S. military personnel. I’d argue that it was in this area that Webb had his most important impact, whether pushing for safe body armor for our troops, fighting to protect TRICARE, addressing the issue of military “Dwell Time” and other important “quality of life” issues for “servicemembers and their families.” Last but certainly not least was almost certainly Webb’s #1 accomplishment in the Senate, the Post-9/11 GI Bill — providing for “the most comprehensive educational benefits since World War II” for “those who have served since 9/11.” If Senator Webb had accomplished nothing else, that alone would justify his 6 years in the Senate.
One more foreign policy area I feel is worth noting is Webb’s opposition to President Obama’s military operation in Libya. We can disagree on the merits of whether the U.S. should have participated in NATO’s intervention in Libya – and I strongly supported that intervention – but I just fundamentally disagree with the articulated reasons for Webb’s opposition. The fact is, the U.S. has intervened in dozens (hundreds?) of cases throughout history, including during the Reagan Administration (Lebanon, Grenada, Libya, etc.), of which Webb was an important member of the national security team. So…no, the multilateral effort against Qaddafi did not, as Webb claimed, “defy historical precedent,” nor was it contrary to our “true strategic interests” (in my view) to participate in this effort with our allies, to prevent a bloodbath, and to rid that nation of a longstanding antagonist of the United States, with American blood clearly on his hands (the Lockerbie bombing, the Berlin disco bombing, etc.).
Stepping back and looking at the broader picture, I’d say there’s no question that Jim Webb had an impact on U.S. foreign policy and national security policy the past 6 years. To an extent, it’s been “reoriented,” but overall I think most foreign policy experts would argue that there’s plenty of continuity from the Bush (and Clinton, and Bush 41) foreign policies, and that there hasn’t really been a fundamental reorientation, all things considered. Again, though, there’s only so much one Senator can do, and Webb certainly tried, which is a lot more than anyone can say for his predecessor, the worthless/abysmal excuse for a Senator, George Allen.
Promoting Social Justice and Economic Fairness
On this front, I’d say that it’s a much more mixed bag (at best) for Senator Webb. Of course, this is a lot tougher area to deal with than foreign policy in many ways, as the issues – globalization, increased income inequality, tax policy, entrenched views on criminal justice, you name it – tend not to be particularly amenable to bipartisan compromise, or even within the control of policymakers at all. And again, there’s only so much one Senator can do.
Still, Webb did work hard on an important area – criminal justice reform – that badly needs to be addressed, and he deserves a lot of credit for doing so. No doubt, it has got to be Webb’s #1 frustration as he leaves the Senate that, in spite of building support from across the political spectrum for his criminal justice reform legislation, the dysfunctional Senate prevented action. It’s utterly absurd, maddening, you name it, that a few Senators can stop action on something that: a) is desperately needed; b) has broad bipartisan support; and c) would almost certainly win a majority of U.S. Senators. The fact that a few Republicans filibustered this legislation is truly, as conservative columnist Reihan Salam called it in the National Review, an “absolute scandal.’ We should all be angry about this mindless obstructionism, because it hurt our country in this case, and it continues to hurt our country in many other cases as well. So, again, great work by Webb, but a major failure by Senate Republicans and the Senate as an institution. Filibuster reform, anyone?!?
On trade policy, Webb points to his efforts advocating for “fair trade.” It’s interesting, thinking back to the 2006 primary with Harris Miller, how trade policy was such a huge issue, one that the Washington Post specifically cited in its endorsement of Harris Miller. In the end, though, I feel like this issue has mostly fizzled out the past few years, as a broad consensus in Congress seems to support trade agreements, fair or not. As for Webb’s “Currency Exchange Rate Oversight Reform Act,” I’m highly skeptical that this will have any meaningful impact at all. Other than that, it’s hard to point to an area in which U.S. trade policy moved in a “fair” direction, whether we’re talking worker rights, environmental standards, or whatever else.
Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention a major area of disagreement – and disappointment – I had with Senator Webb. In 2006, our first conversation focused heavily on Webb’s views on “Jacksonian Democracy,” that the “health of a society is measured at its base, not at its apex.” In the end, as I’ve discussed previously, what we’ve seen is Webb inexplicably arguing that “the proposed $250,000 cut off level is too low, and he is advocating that it be raised.” I’m sorry, but in no way/shape/form is $250,000 per year working class or middle class. In addition, we also had Webb’s opposition – along with conservadems like Ben Nelson, Joe Manchin, and Joe Lieberman – to the “millionaire’s surtax.” Meanwhile, to paraphrase Webb, the rich keep getting richer, the poor keep getting poorer, and the middle class keeps getting squeezed. I’d love to hear what Andrew Jackson would say to Jim Webb on this topic if he had the chance.
Government Accountability and Balance of Powers
Jim Webb certainly deserves credit for working to reform wartime contracting, which as far as I can tell is seriously wasteful, flawed, politicized, and even corrupt. Webb also has done good work on Defense Department oversight, on addressing “star creep” in the military, and on ending wasteful government subsidies for corn ethanol (one of the biggest corporate welfare boondoggles around, also drives up food prices and is environmentally damaging).
On the issue of defining presidential war powers, whether or not you agree with Webb, the reality is that the trend for decades now has been towards more, not less presidential power when it comes to military action. Technology, combined with an increased focus on nonstate/substate actors, has only exacerbated this trend, with drone strikes, cyberwarfare, and in many ways the entire “war on terrorism” residing in a sort of netherworld in terms of whether they constitute “acts of war,” what authorization is required to carry out various U.S. military and intelligence actions. Meanwhile, Congress remains almost completely dysfunctional, making it about the LAST place to look for leadership or clear direction in terms of U.S. national security policy, let alone the fast-moving and complex/nebulous situations that face our military commanders and our Commander in Chief every day. So, bottom line: I have no problem in theory with Congress trying to assert itself as a coequal branch of government when it comes to foreign policy, but I see basically ZERO sign that they are capable of doing so.
Finally, my biggest areas of disagreement with Senator Webb have revolved around his wildly misguided ideas around energy and the environment. The concept that the EPA has “overreached” is so misguided and absurd, it’s hard to even know where to start. To the extreme contrary, the EPA has not moved nearly fast enough, despite clear authorization from BOTH Congress AND the Supreme Court to do so, on dealing with the dire situation of man-made (and yes, it’s almost 100% caused by humans) global warming. And I’m sorry, but Congress has absolutely ZERO standing to complain about the EPA, when it has utterly, miserably, inexcusably failed to pass comprehensive clean energy and climate legislation. Given Congress’ utter abdication on this crucial issue, the EPA is about all we’ve got, so stop holding it back, bashing it, etc. As Jim Webb himself might say, my argument here is that when it comes to energy and the environment, it’s long past time for Congress to either lead, follow, or get the @#$#@$ out of the way. To date, I’ve seen them do none of those things. #FAIL
On another energy/environmental issue, Senator Webb was also wildly off base in his efforts at slowing/preventing new boiler MACT (“Maximum Achievable Control Technology”) legislation, his bizarre embrace of the same coal industry he had ripped to shreds in Born Fighting, and his wrongheaded support for offshore oil drilling, not to mention the utter absurdity of subsidizing nuclear power, which offers about the least “bang for the buck” (e.g., it’s hugely expensive per unit of power produced) of any energy source out there. Now, some would say I shouldn’t have been surprised that Webb would be as poor on energy and environmental issues as he’s turned out to be, but honestly I’m surprised, given what he had written about coal companies turning Appalachia into a “poverty-stricken basket case.” Ugh.
Lastly, just a brief note about Webb as a politician. No, that wasn’t a punch line, although it could have been. Let’s just put it this way: there are reasons why Webb, despite a voting record very similar to Mark Warner’s, is far less popular than Warner. As the saying goes, 90% of life is just showing up, and the fact is that while Warner shows up all over Virginia, Webb is simply not interested in getting out and about, in schmoozing or back slapping or any of that stuff. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that, but I’d argue that it hurt Webb’s ability to establish a strong bond with Virginians during his 6 years in the Senate. Instead, Webb never really seemed to increase his popularity from where it was when he narrowly defeated George Allen in November 2006. It’s too bad, as I’d argue that Webb’s actually accomplished a great deal in the Senate, almost certainly more than Mark Warner has. But Webb’s an introvert, Warner’s an extrovert, and this culture most definitely favors the latter over the former, fairly or not. Such is life, I guess…