It's not that anything so surprising was said today when Madeleine Albright testified before the House Foreign Relations Committee, as that some surprising people were saying it; one Republican after another appeared eager to agree with much of what the former secretary of state had to say on Iraq -- to the point that the partisan outbursts that did occur suddenly seemed like throwbacks to another time.
New Jersey Republican Chris Smith, for example, said that "I, too, like many of my colleagues, have many questions about the surge'' of new troops into Iraq. In the past, he noted, Albright had supported sending more troops, so was her current opposition to the president's plan a matter of timing? When he added, "And I ask this very sincerely, because a lot of us have questions about it,'' he sounded -- like he was asking very sincerely, because he had questions about it.
One of the sharpest exchanges of the day was between Albright and a fellow Democrat. Responding to her suggestion that more should be done to encourage religious leaders in the region to serve as peacemakers, New York Representative Gary Ackerman seemed not to have gotten the memo about how Democrats would do well to avoid seeming hostile to believers in general: "I have no problem with people who pray,'' he said. "They can pray all day and talk to God. I have a problem with the people God talks to...How do you compromise with people who are driven either by evil or by religious convictions?''
Talking with people does not mean compromising with them, she answered coolly, and "I have not turned into a religious mystic, and I'm not a theologian.''
Going forward in Iraq, she told the committee, "There are no good options.'' She said she felt free to speak in a way that had not been possible when she was in government service and every word had to be vetted: "This is the first time I'm appearing before you as myself.''
And she kept her word on that: Iraqi officials, she said, "have no appetite after Abu Ghraib and Haditha for our lectures on human rights.'' Her general impression of escalating violence there, she said, is that, "We have brought a lot of this on ourselves, and put our armed forced in an absurd position,'' in the middle of a civil war. "Is our mission to play the hired gun with one side against the other.'' No. Or to keep the peace on all sides? Impossible. So, "I agree with the president it would be a disaster to leave under the present circumstances,'' she said, "but it may also be a disaster to stay.''
She also called the president's proposal to send in some 21,500 additional troops, "less a statement of policy than a prayer,'' challenged the administration's position that Iraq is the central front in the war on terror, and said al Qaeda operatives are "there because we are.''
At the same time, she questioned the view of some war critics that the situation is apt to improve if we withdraw: "I expect this year to be brutal'' no matter what we do. "But I oppose efforts to cut off funding.'' Democrats on the panel took exception to her suggestion that de-funding troops already on the ground was even up for debate: "No one is recommending cutting funds for troops in the field,'' said Rep. Tom Lantos (D-CA), who chairs the committee.
When -- for old times' sake? -- California Republican Dana Rohrabacher angrily suggested that Albright was encouraging America's enemies by bringing up Abu Ghraib, she smiled like she was enjoying the trip down memory lane: "I'm pleased to continue our very pleasant discussion from the last six years.''