“Give ‘em hell” reads the red battle flag of the USS Harry S. Truman, a replica of which is draped on the wall of House Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton’s Washington office.
The flag hangs inches away from Mr. Skelton’s office window, where the Capitol dome takes up much of the view, and is a paean to Truman, his fellow Missouri Democrat and political hero.
The three-word mantra sums up nicely the political situation of the 17-term lawmaker, who finds himself in the center of the debate over a string of politically sensitive issues, from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to the future of health care, in which Mr. Skelton is not always in line with the majority in his own party.
Truman “was likable, he did not suffer fools and he was smart as a whip,” Mr. Skelton said in an interview. Truman was deeply unpopular at the end of his momentous presidency, “but history has treated him very well.”
As chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, the 77-year-old Mr. Skelton has been one of the key lawmakers the White House has consulted as President Obama decides whether to send more troops to Afghanistan. While many on the party’s liberal wing are leery of escalating the war, Mr. Skelton has emerged as perhaps the most prominent Democratic hawk in Congress on the conflict.
Mr. Skelton stands firmly with U.S. commander in Afghanistan Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, backing the general’s call for tens of thousands of more U.S. troops and setting a goal post on the right in the intraparty Democratic debate.
A bout in his teens with polio left Mr. Skelton unable to serve in the military, but his affinity for and support for those who serve is long and deep. He often recalls seeing C-47s in the skies above his hometown of Lexington — where he still lives — practicing maneuvers ahead of the impending D-Day invasion.
He supported the 2003 invasion of Iraq but emerged as one of the leading congressional critics of the George W. Bush administration’s handling of the post-invasion military and political fallout.
In weighing the way forward now in Afghanistan, he said he takes into account the toll the lengthy conflicts in both Iraq and Afghanistan have taken on today’s generation of warriors.
He recounted the tribulations of one Army Ranger from his district who has been deployed 10 times since 2001, typically for three to four months at a time.
The key to bringing the troops home means winning the wars overseas, Mr. Skelton insisted, even though that may not be the quick and easy way.
“We have to have a sense of ‘mission accomplished,’ and that’s beginning to happen in Iraq , but Afghanistan is still a long way away,” he said.
That stance puts him at odds with many in his own leadership in the House, as well as with such powerful voices as Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat, and Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., who have voiced skepticism about Gen. McChrystal’s ambitious request.
Asked about the rifts in his party, Mr. Skelton acknowledged, “There’s a war-weariness.”
The clamor between supporters and skeptics of Gen. McChrystal has led some to compare today’s rift to the split that led Truman to fire his top commander in the Pacific, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, in the middle of the Korean War.