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Soldiering On
Jack Reed opposed the war in Iraq. But the former paratrooper has been there 12 times—most recently with Senate colleague Barack Obama—and he’s a key to what the Democrats will do to end it. By John E. Mulligan
Comments () | Published August 26, 2008

General John Abizaid sat beside an armored vehicle on the airstrip in Mosul, Iraq. After a marathon schedule of briefings on Easter weekend three years ago, the commander of US forces was explaining why he was optimistic that the United States could succeed in Iraq.

The first democratic elections in Iraq’s history had quieted the insurgency, reducing the roadside bombings and civil strife. The relative calm had given rise in many cities to stirrings of commerce, local politics, and even cooperation with the Americans. To Abizaid, an Arabic speaker with experience in the region, there was evidence that Iraq’s religious and ethnic groups did not want civil war.

Mingling nearby with soldiers from a Rhode Island National Guard brigade was Senator Jack Reed, who had known Abizaid since their days as officers in the 82nd Airborne Division toward the end of the Vietnam War. After three days in Abizaid’s entourage, Reed had absorbed the same stream of intelligence from US and Iraqi brass, from officers and noncoms, from diplomats and contractors. He agreed with most of the general’s observations, but he saw the situation through a different lens: “We could still blow it.”

Reed’s judgment was informed by his first career as a West Point–educated Army officer and the ties he has maintained to people high in the military. His analysis was leavened with the skepticism bred by his second career, as a Harvard-trained lawyer. It was influenced, too, by his third career, as a politician—one who opposed the war in Iraq from the start.

From his first days in the Senate almost 12 years ago, party elders have turned to Reed for military counsel. Since the September 11 attacks, his influence has increased to the point that he is a leader of the Senate Democrats’ informal war council and a key craftsman of Democratic policy on Iraq.

So when Barack Obama spoke to reporters on a hilltop overlooking Amman, Jordan, last month following his tour of Afghanistan and Iraq, it was natural that the man at his right hand was Jack Reed. Reed, leader of the congressional delegation that included Obama, was the first to speak.

“In Iraq we have witnessed a tangible reduction in violence,” Reed said, referring to the measured success of the 2007 “surge” of 30,000 extra combat troops into Iraq—a move that Reed, like Obama and most other Democrats, had opposed. Unlike Obama, Reed had acknowledged as early as last summer that the surge was achieving military gains.

Then Reed rattled off a summary of the Democratic war policy he helped write: “These impressive tactical and operational successes must be linked to a strategy that allows us to decrease our forces in Iraq while continuing ongoing counterterrorism and training missions in Iraq and particularly ensuring robust protection of our forces.”

Reed noted that “Iraq’s political leaders are also urging tangible timelines to accomplish this mission,” alluding to Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki’s suggestion that Obama’s 16-month timetable for pulling US combat troops out of Iraq was compatible with the desires of Iraqi leaders. Reed did not mention that he has long resisted hard deadlines for troop withdrawal in deference to the flexibility he believes General David Petraeus and other US commanders need.

A self-deprecating son of blue-collar parents, Reed said that he was only “the concierge” on the tour of war zones that most observers say bolstered Obama’s foreign-policy and national-security credentials.

But insiders know that Reed, who had made 11 previous trips to Iraq, contributed not only to the hurried preparations for the trip but also to the long-term formulation of a Democratic policy suited to Obama’s argument that Afghanistan—not Iraq—should be the focus of US counterterrorism efforts.

The trip clarified Reed’s status as a leading Democrat who can speak to both sides of this country’s deepest political division since the Vietnam War. He has one foot in the camp that voted against the use of force in Iraq and criticizes the Bush administration’s conduct of the war. But he also has a foot in the camp that thinks a decent ending might yet be salvaged, especially in the wake of the Bush-Petraeus surge and signs of increased military and political skill on the part of the al-Maliki–led government.

“We are in it,” Reed said of the Iraq war this past spring. “We have to maximize our ability to come away with some kind of acceptable outcome.”

The Iraq-Afghanistan trip further fueled talk of Reed as a possible ticketmate or Cabinet pick for Obama—speculation that the Rhode Islander dismisses. Reed likely would be an influential Senate voice in an Obama administration, and he would get a respectful hearing from a President John McCain, too. The Republican senator from Arizona, a conspicuous advocate of the surge in Iraq, said of his longtime colleague on the Senate Armed Services Committee in 2005: “Jack travels to Iraq, he has friends in Iraq, and because of his many connections, Jack sees things in Iraq that a lot of us don’t get to see.”

Reed is a partisan Democrat by most measures and one of the Senate’s most liberal members. He was one of 22 Senate Democrats who voted in 2002 against the use of force in Iraq, but he stood out as the one who viewed the American engagement through a soldier’s eyes. He has tempered his party’s antiwar policy, opposing any shutoff of war funds and generally resisting deadlines for the withdrawal of US troops. He has kept his distance from the judgment that the war is a lost cause built on lies about the threat from Saddam.

“Jack is not the sort of politician that draws a lot of attention to himself,” says Secretary of the Army Pete Geren, a Texas Democrat who served with Reed in the House. “But when Jack talks on military issues, people on both sides of the aisle want to know what he has to say.”

A day with Reed in his hometown of Cranston, Rhode Island, reveals something of his upbringing as the son of a public-school custodian and a factory worker.

On a sunny Sunday, Reed joined the state’s politicians to observe Israel’s 60th birthday. They were at the Temple to Music in a magnificent park designed by Frederick Law Olmstead. Beyond the park’s gate is a broad avenue of auto-parts shops, converted mills, triple-decker homes, and churchfronts with signs in Vietnamese and Spanish. The park is near the factory where Reed’s parents met before World War II, the small Cape Cod–style house he grew up in, and the parish school he attended.

The family spent summers at a little cottage near Scarborough Beach, less than 30 miles to the south. Many of the neighbors camped in Army-surplus tents.

Reed set his sights on military service before he went to LaSalle Academy, a Christian Brothers school in nearby Providence, where he played varsity football. The 20/20 vision requirement scuttled an early dream of Annapolis, so he went to West Point.

“If you count marching to chapel on Sundays,” Reed once said, he’s been working seven-day weeks since his plebe summer—one year before the Tet offensive. US forces left Vietnam before many members of his class of 1971 got orders to fight there. Second Lieutenant Reed, graduating 16th in his class, got orders to study at Harvard. After earning a master’s degree at the Kennedy School of Government, he joined the 82nd Airborne Division. Reed, who might reach five-foot-seven on a tall day, laughs as he recalls the challenge of being one of the shortest officers at Fort Bragg.

Reed became commander of his paratroop company, taught for a time at West Point, and in 1979, after 12 years in the Army, resigned from active duty as a captain and returned to Harvard to study law. After a year with a Washington firm, he went home to Rhode Island, joined a Providence firm, and soon began a string of winning election campaigns. ➝

Reed’s three terms in the state senate foreshadowed what was to come. He became known for getting results, if not headlines, through preparation, persistence, and civil dealings with adversaries.

In 1990 Reed mortgaged his house and bet most of his life savings on a race for an open congressional seat. The contest was the toughest of his eight campaigns, and Reed showed a willingness to launch tough attacks if that’s what it took to win.

Trudy Coxe, a well-known environmentalist, was the kind of liberal Republican that Rhode Island has often elected. Reed—by now a lawyer with two Harvard degrees—waged a brand of class warfare that could still heat up a crowd. He blasted Coxe over oil stocks in the “million-dollar portfolio” she had inherited from her parents. The race played as a caricature battle of New England stereotypes: scrappy Irish street pol versus scion of the Yankee ruling class. The competitive race cracked open in its last weeks, and Reed won going away.

In the House of Representatives, he was a solid liberal and very popular at home.


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Posted at 12:00 AM/ET, 08/26/2008 RSS | Print | Permalink | Articles