Interview: Illinois Senator Dick Durbin

By Kevin Robinson in Miscellaneous on Sep 4, 2007 2:30PM

Born and raised in East St. Louis, Dick Durbin worked his way through Georgetown University, earning a BS from the School of Foreign Service in 1966. During his senior year in college, he served as an intern in the office of Illinois Senator Paul Douglas. He graduated from Georgetown Law in 1969, and soon after he opened a law practice in Springfield, serving as legal council to Lieutenant Governor Paul Simon from 1969 to 1972, and then as legal counsel to the Illinois State Senate Judiciary Committee from 1972 to 1982. In 1978 he ran for Lieutenant Governor, losing to incumbent Republicans Jim Thompson and Dave O'Neal. In 1982 he defeated Republican Paul Findley for the 20th Congressional District seat, which included most of Springfield. He ran and won six more times, often facing little serious opposition. In 1996 he was nominated to run for the Senate seat that Illinois Senator Paul Simon was retiring from. He has held that seat since, and is up for re-election next year.

2007_9_durbin.jpgPrior to the 109th Congress, Senator Dick Durbin served as the Assistant Democratic Floor Leader, a position appointed by former Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle. In 2004 he became the Senate Minority Whip, and after the Democratic Party won a majority in both houses of Congress in 2006, he became the Majority Whip, the second ranking Democrat in the Senate. In his capacity as Majority Whip, his job is to gather votes on major issues. Well regarded in progressive political circles for his ability to effectively frame the Democratic agenda and his ability to get things done in the Senate, he has a fairly consistent voting record on progressive issues. Time Magazine named him one of the "10 Best Senators" in April 2006.

Chicagoist sat down with Senator Durbin in his Chicago office last week to discuss the war in Iraq.

Chicagoist: There seems to be a real sense of frustration and disillusionment among young Democrats, among people that voted for change in Congress last year, myself included, who feel that little progress has been made on major national issues. Why are we still in Iraq, and what are you doing to get us out?

Dick Durbin: I understand that frustration; I was in the minority, and now we’re in the majority, and people expect a lot of things to happen. I have to do Senate math with you for a minute and talk about reality. The reality is that under the Senate rules, a filibuster, which any Senator can initiate, can only be stopped with 60 votes. We have 51 Democratic votes. And so anything that is going to move forward needs 60 votes. So far, Mitch McConnell on the Republican side has used the filibuster 45 times this year. The record in the Senate for a two year period of time is 58. So he is going to pass that record, stopping everything he can, and forcing 60 votes on everything that he can, including the war in Iraq. So we find ourselves begging, pleading, urging our Republican colleagues to come join us in putting together a timetable to bring the troops home and change the policy. So far we’ve been fortunate to have four join us; we lost one of our own, [Connecticut Senator Joe] Lieberman, and [South Dakota Senator] Tim Johnson was out sick, he’ll be back, so our high water mark is 53. We need 60 votes to pass anything. We need 67 to override a President’s veto, to put it in terms of math. So I’m frustrated too. Yes, there was change in Congress, not enough. We need more Democrats or more Republicans who are willing to break with the President. That’s why Iraq has not progressed to the point that I want to see it. I want to see our troops start coming home. I wish it would have started last year. I’ve voted for it every time.

In terms of other things we have accomplished, what we’ve done is stopped the worst things of the Bush administration. In terms of appointments and initiatives, the President can’t get to first base with a Democratic Congress and Senate. We’ve managed to do some things which haven’t been done in a long time. First Senate in 10 years to increase the federal minimum wage, passed the 9/11 Commission recommendations into law which no Republican Congress has been able to do. We’ve had oversight hearings on Iraq, over a hundred of them in the House and the Senate, when the Republicans refused to do the same thing. We’ve moved a lot of legislation that I think has been valuable. Most recently was the SCHIP legislation to extend the children’s health insurance program, and again, we had to rely on a bipartisan group to do it. We’ve changed the way we finance college education and student loans to make them fair and cheaper and to cut the subsidies to the private companies. So we have a lot to point to that we have achieved. We have a lot more that we could have achieved. They are determined to stop us, and they have used the filibuster to stop us.

C: You mention that four Republicans have come over to the Democratic side. Notwithstanding the Democrat that you lost, do you think that having Republicans come over to your side to oppose the President on the war puts you in a better position to negotiate a troop withdrawal?

2007_9_durbin_roof.jpgDD: Yes. At this point, [Oregon Senator] Gordon Smith and [Nebraska Senator] Chuck Hagel, [Maine Senator Susan] Collins and [Maine Senator Olympia] Snowe have joined us. [Virginia Senator John] Warner is making noises like he’ll join us. [Indiana Senator Dick] Lugar has given a speech that indicates that he might join us, and Tim Johnson is coming back. If all that happens, that brings us to 56. And if we can pick up a few more, we’re close. I think it is really hurtful to the President when a fellow like John Warner steps out. He’s been a very loyal stalwart of the President’s policy. But John Warner is deciding whether to run again. He’s at 80 years of age. He struggles with this war. I run into John, just passing him sitting in the subway going to the vote. You know, I ask him “How’re you doing, John?” and his answer is “I think about this war every day.” I didn’t ask him about the war. So I know that it is weighing on his conscience. And he can be helpful, he can bring over a few votes. It’s the only the way we really put the President on the spot. We may end up just forcing a veto. The more pressure, the more visibility that we can put on this issue, the better.

C: You talk about these 60 votes. You talk about forcing a veto. Why haven’t you forced a veto?

DD: We did. We had one Iraq timetable bill that the President did veto. He’s had three vetoes since he’s been president. That’s one, the other two were on stem cells. We’re going to try and put it on his desk again. I don’t know that it will change. I don’t know that he will change. But that’s all that we can do at this point. Funding is the other issue. Funding will come up soon. I’ve been struggling with this; many of us have. I was one of 23 who voted against the war. Felt then, still feel an obligation to the troops in the field. I’ve been there, been with them. They’re wonderful, they put their lives on the line. They’re somebody’s son or daughter. I want them to have what they need to get home safely. But I want to figure out a way to put this spending in a context of winding this war down, and that’s what we’re going to be working on.

C: That seemed to be what the debate was about last time – whether or not congress was going to fund continued combat in Iraq. What happened between the debate to defund the war and the troop surge?

DD: Well, if you put the questions, just point blank, to the 49 Democrats who have consistently voted for troop withdrawal, on funding the troops, our ranks break down. We would probably have ten Democratic Senators who would say “I can’t vote to cut off funds if the troops are in the field.” I’ve heard senators who voted against the war from the start say, “I don’t know how I can go back to that fort in my home state, and face the families of those soldiers and tell them we just cut off funds for your son, for your father, for your husband.” It is a difficult thing. And I struggle with it myself in terms of what is the right thing to do. We have to find a way to turn this corner, I’m looking for it. I’m working with Russ Feingold, and I think he’s trying to find that himself.

C: You recently went to Iraq with PA Senator Casey. You told CNN that you had seen military progress, but you also alluded to a lack of progress in the government, and stabilization in Iraq. What makes you think there’s been military progress, and what makes you think the government is destabilized?

DD: Well, I’ve seen it. First, I didn’t go to Al-Anbar Province, but all the reports suggest that finally the Sunnis have decided they’ve had it with Al-Qaeda, they’re working with us. So there is progress. In Diyala, same story. We’re starting to get local buy-in from some of the Iraqis. Where I went was twelve miles south of Baghdad, to what’s known as Patrol Base Murray. It’s a third infantry division group out of Ft. Stewart GA. Nine hundred of them who are now in an area where we’ve never had military presence since our invasion. It was controlled by Al-Qaeda forces, and was a transit point for guns and for explosives into Baghdad. So now we’ve taken it and are trying to control it. We’ve made some progress. We’re six weeks in and you can see what they’ve done: they have a presence and posts, and everybody is working to try and find the bombs and diffuse them before they hurt anybody. It would be naive, if not wrong, to suggest that you add 30,000 skilled American soldiers into that situation and not end up with more [security]. But let me add an important post script: I asked the colonel in charge when he told me his strategy for the area "what happens at the end of your deployment?" "I don’t know. There is no option. The Iraqis are not being trained to come in behind us. Maybe another American force?" That’s unacceptable. Sending more and more American soldiers in to do that sort of thing, there’s no end in sight.
At the same time, I mentioned that the al-Malaki government is no longer a government of national unity, they can’t claim that in good conscience. The Sadr forces, Shias, were forced out, as they should have been. I think Sadr was engaged in the kind of sectarianism that we shouldn’t support. When he was put in charge of the Health Ministry, for example, he wouldn’t provide funds for hospitals in Sunni areas. That’s unacceptable. And his militia is on it’s own – it’s not answerable to anybody, including the Iraqi Army. So I understood why he was forced out. The Sunnis walked out. So at this point there’s nothing left. There is a skeleton of a government. So our forces are out there trying to establish order when there is no central government, and that is a recipe for failure, and Bush is ignoring it, at his peril. I just don’t think it is sustainable to think that American troops are going to stay, or be enlarged, or continue on with their current mission. I don’t think the American people will tolerate it.

C: It sounds like the US Military is on a short-term mission to create some sort of stabilization in a country appears to be in a vacuum, if there is no central government. What does it take for the US to stabilize Iraq?

DD: I’m not sure. It really gets down to some fundamental questions, and really I mean fundamental questions. Do Iraqis really believe that they are Iraqis? Do they identify first with Kurds, or Sunnis, or Shias, or being part of an Iraqi nation. I don’t have the answer to that question yet. I think the jury’s still out, whether they are a nation and want to be a nation and make the sacrifices that it takes to be a nation. We make speeches about democracy and freedom being inherent inalienable rights, and I believe it, as an American. But in some cultures there’s an evolution from authoritarian rule to representative government. And this evolution may be short-lived, or long-term. And this one appears to be long-term. How long will it take them to reach a point where they accept representative government? I don’t know the answer. When I asked some expatriates, they said five, ten years, then they might be more comfortable with this. But can we sustain this for ten more years? In terms of the cost in human life and dollars? When it gets down to the fundamentals, I’m not sure about the future of Iraq and whether or not they are going to move to a point of stability soon. Which obviously leaves the question, what’s next? I don’t know. If the US picks a successor to al-Malaki, he’s doomed from the start. He’s an American sponsored leader. I don’t know if the Iraqis have someone on the bench to take over. But I think al-Malaki, for a variety of reasons should be replaced.

C: You talk about this as if it’s a long term engagement, and there aren’t any hard answers coming up. You talk about five and ten year engagements, but then talk about all the Democrats you have lined up to hammer the Bush administration on withdrawal. It raises the question, if we get out of Iraq, what happens if we can’t stabilize it first?

DD: I don’t know the answer to that. I think it will be chaotic. I don’t know how bad. If we leave in ten months or ten years, there will come a moment where they will have to make a fundamental decision for themselves. Bush doesn’t want to face that reality, that they won’t choose the right thing, and that it may be worse than it was when we invaded. I think that is unfortunately a possibility. But we’ll never know until we put the burden and responsibility on the Iraqis. They have to step up and understand that we’re not going to stay forever. They have to make responsible and hard political decisions to move to the next level. I think as long as we are there, as long as every time they dial 911 another 30,000 American soldiers will magically appear, they’re not going to accept this reality. What I have seen with their army, with their police force, tells me that they need a dose of reality, in terms of what we expect of them. And I don’t think Bush is giving it to them.

C: If we get to that point where the US says, well you have to take over for yourself, and we get out. We’re already in the middle of a civil war. If it devolves into even more of a bloody civil war and there is rampant ethnic cleansing if not outright genocide, what level of responsibility does the US then bear to Iraq after that?

2007_9_durbin_iraq.jpg Well, we certainly do bear a responsibility. As heinous as Saddam Hussein was, as brutal a dictator he was, the country was stable. Although he imposed Sunni rule over the Shia, the fact was that there was stability. It wasn’t our brand of stability, but it was stable. Now it is unstable, and it’s likely to be unstable for some time to come. But I feel at some point, whether it’s now, or five years from now, the Iraqis have to go through this process. I don’t know that ethnic cleansing will follow. Everybody’s got a lot of guns in that country. There may be helpless victims, for sure, but by and large it’s an armed society. In terms of their power, and the militias power, within those societies, both Shia and Sunni, they are heavily capitalized, Sunnis by Saudi Arabia and Shias by Iran. So that’s likely to continue. The Kurds, I’m sure in that circumstance, would say, we’re on our own. We’ve always wanted a Kurdistan, now we’re going to create one, and leave them to their devices in the rest of the country. I also think that as we start making it clear that we’re leaving, surrounding nations, and I just mentioned two – Saudi Arabia and Iran – are really forced to make a decision. Are they going to allow Iraq to devolve into a client state of Iran, or this wild frontier, or will they step in and put some regional effort into stabilizing the country. Right now it is American sponsored, American paid for, and unfortunately we are not engaging these other nations as we should.

C: Is there a way for the US to get the rest of the Middle East to do that regional sponsorship? It seems that Afghanistan and parts of Pakistan have been the Wild West for a long time.

DD: I think President Bush has lost the ability to do that. I don’t think he has the credibility necessary to create a diplomatic front here. I wish that wasn’t true, but when I look at how little he’s been able to achieve, he just has no credibility in that part of the world. The Arabs, the Muslims and such view him as someone who is in it for the US alone, and not for their own good. That may not be totally fair, but it’s totally accurate.

C: Do you think that perception would change under a Democratic president?

DD: I think it would change under any president. Either party would be given a chance to prove otherwise. I happen to think a Democratic president, even more so.

C: Senator Durbin, thank you for your time.

DD: Thank you.

In order of appearance:

Images via
Dick Durbin and Rachelle Bowden