Courageous congressman exits but hopefully his vision stays

Brian Baird, a Democrat from Washington state, is retiring from Congress. His departure after 12 years of service is a loss for both the House of Representatives and America.

I hosted the US congressman Brian Baird, a Democrat from Washington state retiring from Congress, on my weekly television programme Viewpoint on Abu Dhabi TV last week. His departure after 12 years of service is a loss for both the House of Representatives and America. There are several qualities that have distinguished Mr Baird's work. At the top of the list have been his commitment to principle and courage, which have led him to tackle tough issues, defying both political expediency and, at times, his own party's leadership.

These traits were apparent in Mr Baird's approach to the Iraq war. An opponent of the war, he argued before the invasion that it was both a mistake and a dangerous diversion that would draw attention and resources away from unfinished business in Afghanistan. By 2006, the Democratic leadership in Congress found the courage to oppose a war they never should have supported. They began half-hearted legislative to withdraw US forces from Iraq. Mr Baird, who had made numerous visits to the war zone, once again found himself the contrarian. Arguing that the US had a responsibility both to the country we had invaded and to the Americans and Iraqis who had given their lives in battle, he broke with his party and supported the Bush "surge". He did so, not because he was confident in its success, but because he knew that withdrawal meant certain failure fraught with danger for Iraq, the region and US interests.

Having recently returned from his seventh visit to Iraq, Mr Baird is once again challenging accepted wisdom when he proposes that the Obama administration may need to reconsider the December 2011 deadline for the withdrawal of all US forces from Iraq. He argues that while the Iraqi army has made significant progress, lethal and destabilising threats remain, and too many lives have been sacrificed to now squander the achievements of the past three years. "The mission in Iraq is not finished," he says. "Just as it was a mistake to neglect Afghanistan for Iraq, we must not now neglect Iraq for Afghanistan".

Mr Baird recognises, of course, that the US and Iraq have established a timetable for withdrawal in their 2008 Status of Forces Agreement, but he says that should the Iraqi authorities request a continuation of American military trainers or logistical support, we ought to be willing to provide that assistance into 2012 and beyond. He says: "Walking away from atrocities does not make them go away, and it is not conscionable morally or wise strategically … Once a conflict begins, the costs of succeeding can be far higher than we want to pay, but the costs of failure can be far greater still." One may not agree, but these are arguments that should not be casually dismissed.

Another issue where Mr Baird's courage and conviction have been demonstrated is in his approach to Gaza. He and fellow Congressman Keith Ellison were the first two American officials to travel to that devastated strip after the Israeli assault in January 2009. In his report back to Congress after that visit, he spoke passionately about the destruction of Gaza's infrastructure and the suffering inflicted on the Palestinian civilian population. He called for a new American policy that not only pursued an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, but that also addressed the urgent humanitarian needs of Gaza's people.

When the Goldstone Report was released, Mr Baird once again teamed up with Mr Ellison, this time to defend the integrity of Justice Goldstone and to decry the efforts of their colleagues in Congress who were demanding that the report's findings be rejected. Mr Baird told Congress: "This is about much more than just another imposed political litmus test that we are all too often asked to perform." He then proceeded to list the atrocities he had observed, saying: "This is also about our own domestic security. If we are seen internationally as condoning violations of human rights and international law, if our money and our weaponry play a leading role in those violations, and if we reflexively obstruct the findings … of Justice Goldstone, it can only diminish our international standing and our own security."

I confess that while I have been in Washington for 33 years and understand the game of politics, I remain drawn to political leaders who demonstrate integrity and a passion for justice. I remember all too well when first seeing Mister Smith Goes to Washington how moved I was by that young senator's insistence that the truth be told. Every time I see that movie, I am inspired with the hope that Washington can be more like that and less like the place that it all too often is.

Every once in a while our faith in politics can be restored: by Senator Dick Durbin standing up against torture, or Senator Russ Feingold casting a lone vote against the Patriot Act, or by the courageous leadership shown by Brian Baird. In no way do I mean to suggest that these individuals are alone. There are many principled members of Congress (too many, in fact, to name). But it is clear that there are not enough. When one of these leaders leaves the Congress, it is a loss we must lament.

James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute