Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Democrats Refocus Message on Iraq After Military Gains

By Jonathan Weisman and Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, August 22, 2007; A04

Democratic leaders in Congress had planned to use August recess to raise the heat on Republicans to break with President Bush on the Iraq war. Instead, Democrats have been forced to recalibrate their own message in the face of recent positive signs on the security front, increasingly focusing their criticisms on what those military gains have not achieved: reconciliation among Iraq's diverse political factions.

And now the Democrats, along with wavering Republicans, will face an advertising blitz from Bush supporters determined to remain on offense. A new pressure group, Freedom's Watch, will unveil a month-long, $15 million television, radio and grass-roots campaign today designed to shore up support for Bush's policies before the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, lays out a White House assessment of the war's progress. The first installment of Petraeus's testimony is scheduled to be delivered before the House Armed Services and Foreign Affairs committees on the sixth anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, a fact both the administration and congressional Democrats say is simply a scheduling coincidence.

The leading Democratic candidates for the White House have fallen into line with the campaign to praise military progress while excoriating Iraqi leaders for their unwillingness to reach political accommodations that could end the sectarian warfare.

"We've begun to change tactics in Iraq, and in some areas, particularly in Anbar province, it's working," Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) said in a speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars on Monday.

"My assessment is that if we put an additional 30,000 of our troops into Baghdad, that's going to quell some of the violence in the short term," Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) echoed in a conference call with reporters Tuesday. "I don't think there's any doubt that as long as U.S. troops are present that they are going to be doing outstanding work."

Advisers to both said theirs were political as well as substantive statements, part of a broader Democratic effort to frame Petraeus's report before it is released next month by preemptively acknowledging some military success in the region. Aides to several Senate Democrats said they expect that to be a recurring theme in the coming weeks, as lawmakers return to hear Petraeus's testimony and to possibly take up a defense authorization bill and related amendments on the war.

For Democratic congressional leaders, the dog days of August are looking anything but quiet. Having failed twice to crack GOP opposition and force a major change in war policy, Democrats risk further alienating their restive supporters if the September showdown again ends in stalemate. House Democratic leaders held an early morning conference call yesterday with House Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton (D-Mo.), honing a new message: Of course an influx of U.S. troops has improved security in Iraq, but without any progress on political reconciliation, the sweat and blood of American forces has been for naught.

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) made a round of calls yesterday to freshman Democrats, some of whom recently returned from trips to Iraq and made news with their positive comments on military progress. "I'm not finding any wobbliness on the war -- at all," Emanuel said.

The burst of effort has been striking, if only because Democrats left for their August recess confident that Republicans would be on the defensive by now. Instead, the GOP has gone on the attack. The new privately funded ad campaign, to run in 20 states, features a gut-level appeal from Iraq war veterans and the families of fallen soldiers, pleading: "It's no time to quit. It's no time for politics."

"For people who believe in peace through strength, the cavalry is coming," said Ari Fleischer, a former Bush White House press secretary who is helping to head Freedom's Watch.

GOP leaders have latched on to positive comments from Democrats -- often out of context -- to portray the congressional majority as splintering. Rep. Ellen O. Tauscher (D-Calif.), an Armed Services Committee member who is close to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), said many of her colleagues learned a hard lesson from the Republican campaign.

"I don't know of anybody who isn't desperately supportive of the military," she said. "People want to say positive things. But it's difficult to say positive things in this environment and not have some snarky apologist for the White House turn it into some clipped phraseology that looks like support for the president's policies."

Rep. Jerry McNerney (D-Calif.), who made waves when he returned from Iraq by saying he was willing to be more flexible on troop withdrawal timelines, issued a statement to constituents "setting the record straight."

"I am firmly in favor of withdrawing troops on a timeline that includes both a definite start date and a definite end date," he wrote on his Web site.

But in an interview yesterday, McNerney made clear his views have shifted since returning from Iraq. He said Democrats should be willing to negotiate with the generals in Iraq over just how much more time they might need. And, he said, Democrats should move beyond their confrontational approach, away from tough-minded, partisan withdrawal resolutions, to be more conciliatory with Republicans who might also be looking for a way out of the war.

"We should sit down with Republicans, see what would be acceptable to them to end the war and present it to the president, start negotiating from the beginning," he said, adding, "I don't know what the [Democratic] leadership is thinking. Sometimes they've done things that are beyond me."

In the fight for the Democratic presidential nomination, former senator John Edwards issued a scathing attack on Clinton's remark. But he said there has been "progress in Al-Anbar province."

"Senator Clinton's view that the President's Iraq policy is 'working' is another instance of a Washington politician trying to have it both ways," Edwards campaign manager David Bonior said in a statement. "You cannot be for the President's strategy in Iraq but against the war. The American people deserve straight talk and real answers on Iraq, not double-speak, triangulation, or political positioning."

Monday, August 06, 2007

Saving Soldiers' Jobs

Washington Post
August 4, 2007
Pg. 15
Saving Soldiers' Jobs
By Amy R. Gershkoff

For tens of thousands of members of the National Guard and reserves who are called up to serve in Iraq, returning home safely may be the beginning -- not the end -- of their worst nightmare. Reservists lucky enough to make it home often find their civilian jobs gone and face unsympathetic employers and a government that has restricted access to civilian job-loss reports rather than prosecuting offending employers.

The Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA) protects members of the guard and reserves from job loss, demotion, loss of seniority and loss of benefits when they are called to active duty.

The act is supposed to protect reservists' civilian jobs for up to five years of military service. But the government has made it difficult for veterans to enforce their legal rights. Service members who return to find their civilian jobs gone also find that the burden is on them to prove that their jobs were taken away as a result of their military service and that there is no other reason that they could have been fired.

This onerous burden of proof discourages many from filing formal complaints.
Despite such bureaucratic hurdles, more than 16,000 reservist complaints were filed between 2004 and 2006, the Government Accountability Office said this year. But fewer than 30 percent of the reservists who experience USERRA violations file complaints, the GAO estimated.

Those who do file complaints with the Veterans Employment and Training Service Department (VETS) find that resolving their complaints, by the military's own admission, can take "months, if not years." A declassified Defense Department memo compiled for military lawyers stated: "Many VETS field investigators simply accept whatever the employer tells them in a response and close their files"
rather than continue an investigation, meaning the reservists never receive assistance. A 2005 GAO report found that the average time service members have to wait for USERRA complaints to be resolved is 619 days -- nearly two years.

Complaints that cannot be closed are referred to the Justice Department for prosecution, but few cases make it that far. In 2005, of the 5,302 complaints filed by reservists, 111 cases were referred to the Justice Department. Only 16 resulted in benefits going to reservists.

The Justice Department special counsel in charge of prosecuting veterans' job cases, Scott Bloch, declared before Congress in May 2005 that he had "zero tolerance for violations of USERRA" and would "enforce the law vigorously." He promised lawmakers that the Justice Department would do better.

It did -- barely. In 2006, the Justice Department received168 cases and found in favor of the service members 48 times. Resolving 48 cases is better than 16, but tens of thousands of veterans are still without jobs and without recourse.

If the Justice Department has failed to prosecute employers who act illegally, the Defense Department has taken unprecedented steps to keep reservists'
reemployment problems secret. According to the GAO, the Pentagon's annual Status of Forces Surveys provide the only accurate account of the number of reservists experiencing reemployment difficulties. These surveys ask reservists about their service, job loss and whether they are receiving the legal protections -- occupational and otherwise -- guaranteed to them under federal law.

Status of Forces Surveys used to be available to the public. But the 2005 and
2006 surveys of returning reservists and guardsmen were designated "for official use only," putting them off-limits to civilians, journalists or anyone else outside government curious about enforcement of USERRA.

The Defense Department has effectively made oversight of this issue impossible.
America deserves a full accounting of the sacrifices our soldiers have made on and off the battlefield. Most reservists are not wealthy; when the government fails to redress their grievances, the majority cannot afford to hire lawyers to prosecute their cases, particularly if they have lost their civilian jobs.
Thousands of the brave men and women lucky enough to return safely from Iraq are being left without jobs, without hope and without recourse.

The government has failed to protect these reservists and has covered up the evidence. It is time for Americans to protect those who protect us by demanding thorough oversight of the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act.

The writer is director of analytics at MSHC Partners, a Washington consulting firm.

Latest poll shows growing support for Iraq war policy


USA TODAY's Susan Page reports that President Bush is making some headway in arguing that the increase in U.S. troops in Iraq is showing military progress.

In the latest USA TODAY/Gallup Poll, taken Friday through Sunday, the proportion of those who said the additional troops are "making the situation better" rose to 31% from 22% a month ago. Those who said it was "not making much difference" dropped to 41% from 51%.

About the same number said it was making things worse: 24% now, 25% a month ago.

The number of those who favor removing virtually all U.S. troops from Iraq by next April 1 has dropped a bit, though two-thirds of those surveyed still support the idea.

In the July survey, a record high of 62% had called the invasion of Iraq "a mistake." That view is now held by 57%, roughly where it's been for more than a year.

The telephone poll of 1,012 adults has a margin of error of +/- 3 percentage points.

Watch for more results from the poll tomorrow.