Political Hay

Duped in Seattle

The surreal world of "Baghdad Jim" McDermott.

By 10.28.10

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In a political climate where Democrats everywhere -- from Harry Reid to Barbara Boxer -- face a political tsunami, one member of the party faithful remains safe from the storm, set to cruise easily to yet another reelection. That Democrat is Jim McDermott, who ought to be forever known as "Baghdad Jim," and for reasons that, in a sane universe, would forever keep him from being reelected. Only in a congressional district like Washington state's District 7 -- dominated by wealthy, white Seattle liberals -- could this be possible.

So protected is McDermott that there isn't even a Republican running against him, and the independent challenger, Bob Jeffers-Schroder, is on record conceding "there is no way" he will defeat McDermott. "I'm not at all concerned with trying to win," says Jeffers-Schroder.

Perhaps that's a badge of honor. Given McDermott's views and actions, and, nonetheless, repeated massive re-election, who would want the approval of these voters?

There are many ways to illustrate McDermott's wild liberalism, but one case continues to say it all. It was September 2002. The Bush administration was making its case and preparing America and the world for war in Iraq. So, three anti-war Democrat congressmen traveled to Iraq, hoping to dissuade military action. They were Rep. Jim McDermott (D-WA), Rep. David Bonior (D-Mich.), and Rep. Mike Thompson (D-Calif.).

All three were predictable anti-war, anti-Bush votes. If Saddam Hussein was fishing for suckers, McDermott and Bonior in particular would be among the very best candidates in Congress. McDermott, in particular, was primed.

Naturally, Saddam's aides could not wait to get a microphone in front of McDermott. More than that, they had a studio ready. And it was there, on September 29, 2002, that the Iraqi government eagerly positioned McDermott for an interview with ABC News' "This Week" with George Stephanopoulos.

Right on cue, McDermott mouthed the Iraqi Baathist Party line. When Stephanopoulos asked McDermott if he stood by his claim that President Bush "will lie to the American people in order to get us into war," the congressman held firm: "I think the president would mislead the American people." The Seattle congressman deduced that Bush and his administration would "give out misinformation."

When Stephanopoulos asked for evidence, McDermott simply reaffirmed his conviction that the president was a deceiver. Stephanopoulos, a former top Clinton aide, was surprised when McDermott suspended the same suspicion toward his endearing hosts in Iraq. After all, Saddam had lied for decades. And yet, whereas Bush allegedly operated on duplicity, McDermott said of Saddam and his regime: "I think you have to take the Iraqis on their face value."

Part of that "face value," said McDermott, was for the Bush administration to understand that Saddam, after a decade-plus of obstructing U.N. inspectors, was now suddenly supportive of "unfettered inspections." The Iraqis, added McDermott, had given him "assurances" of that.

The three congressmen were a hit in Iraq. Every stop on their goodwill tour was circulated by Saddam's Ministry of Information, which published their itinerary in government-controlled newspapers, television, radio, and on the ministry's website in both Arabic and English. As Stephen Hayes reported at the time, these stories were headlined on front-pages and news broadcasts; they ran aside other celebratory Iraqi news items, such as stories on the "criminal Bush," on U.S. "war crimes" against Iraqi children, on how the "U.S. embargo" starved Iraqi infants and killed seniors, on non-stop U.S. military "war waging" around the world, on heroic Palestinian suicide bombers, and how Jews were responsible for 9/11.

It was quite a display. Even friendly news sources in America seemed embarrassed by the congressmen. A CNN reporter asked McDermott if he minded being exploited for propaganda by Saddam's tyrannical regime. "If being used means that we're highlighting the suffering of Iraqi children, or any children," replied the congressman, "then, yes, we don't mind being used."

McDermott's fellow Democrats, from the head of the DNC to Bill Clinton to John Kerry to leading members of Congress like Dick Gephardt, Barney Frank, and even Nancy Pelosi, were stunned, some into complete silence, others into brief replies of "no comment."

And the congressman wasn't finished. Upon his return from Iraq, speaking on PBS's "News Hour," McDermott said Congress was faced with a war authorization that was really about whether "the United States can decide to wipe out another country's leader whenever we don't like them." The interviewer, Gwen Ifill, was compelled to ask McDermott to respond to the charge that he had been "an apologist for Saddam Hussein." McDermott said that those making such accusations "are stupid."

So blatant and successful had been the manipulation by Saddam that conservatives around the country began derisively calling McDermott "Baghdad Jim." But even they could not have known just how badly McDermott and friends had been rolled.

As the Associated Press would report six years later in a March 2008 story, based on the verdict of federal prosecutors, Saddam's intelligence agency had "secretly financed" (AP's words) the trip by the three U.S. lawmakers. Prosecutors determined that the trip was arranged by a Middle Easterner in Detroit, named Muthanna Al-Hanooti, who was charged with setting up the trip "at the behest of Saddam's regime." Iraqi intelligence officials, prosecutors learned, reportedly paid for the trip through an intermediary, and rewarded Al-Hanooti with two million barrels of Iraqi oil.

Prosecutors said they had "no information whatsoever" that the three Congressmen were aware that the trip was underwritten by Saddam's henchmen. "Obviously, we didn't know it at the time," explained McDermott. "The trip was to see the plight of the Iraqi children. That's the only reason we went."

McDermott's spokesman said the congressman had been invited to Iraq by a Seattle "church group," and had been unaware of Iraqi funding.

What's fascinating about this from my perspective, and historically, is that it's a rare case of War on Terror duping that bears a strict resemblance to Cold War duping. What I mean by that is this:

During the Cold War, communists, from Moscow to New York, excelled at carefully manipulating liberals and progressives, prompting these dupes to say and do some really dumb things. These things served the interests of our adversaries, namely, the Soviet Union and international communism. To the contrary, during the War on Terror, when a Ted Kennedy, a John Kerry, a Dick Durbin, a Harry Reid, a Pete Stark, a Jimmy Carter, a Maxine Waters, a Barbara Lee, a John Murtha, a Barack Obama, an Al Gore, or some other liberal, said something really dumb that served the interests of our adversaries, it was rarely (if ever) prompted by those adversaries. Typically, they uttered some irresponsibly outrageous inanity because they couldn't control their boiling rage at George W. Bush. The enemy, whether Saddam, Ahmadinejad, Osama Bin Laden, or Al-Qaeda, no doubt thrilled in these statements, but they didn't carefully prompt the statements.

What's so striking about the Baghdad Jim example, however, is that here was a rare War on Terror case where the statements were triggered, at least in part, through attempted manipulation by the enemy, to the point that Saddam and friends rolled out the red carpet -- and opened the TV studios. In other words, the McDermott case sets a precedent for modern-day dupery. In a sane world, or, more specifically, a sane congressional district, voters would be so embarrassed by such actions that they wouldn't reelect their congressman.

Alas, apparently, Washington's 7th district functions amid some other plane of existence. Jim McDermott is safe, no longer ensconced by the cold embrace of a dead Saddam Hussein but by the warm, open arms of Seattle's progressives.

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About the Author

Paul Kengor is professor of political science and executive director of The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. His latest book is 11 Principles of a Reagan Conservative.