A truly great leader is a person who, when in a position to affect important events, makes the right choices and changes things for the better when nobody else is able or willing to do so. This is particularly true if the person sacrifices their own best interests for that greater good. The late Sen. Joe Lieberman was a truly great leader.

While Lieberman, a Democrat from Connecticut, was a man of many accomplishments, what makes him great is that he, nearly single-handedly, saved America and our allies from a catastrophic defeat in Iraq by supporting the so-called “surge” when the political tide was almost overwhelmingly against him. This was done at great personal and political cost, from which he never truly recovered.

Relitigating the decision to overthrow Saddam Hussein has limited value. I think even most supporters of that decision would admit that the aftermath proved to be much more difficult than anticipated, with numerous unintended side effects. Conversely, pretending that the Middle East was stable with Hussein in power is a foolish and ahistorical argument. Hussein had instigated two destabilizing wars (with Iran and Kuwait) inside of a decade and would have provoked more if given the chance. Iraq may well have gone the way of Syria or Yemen, or worse. No one knows how historical counterfactuals would have played out.

But what perhaps should be relitigated is the wider debate over the surge, which arguably saved the U.S., innocent Iraqis and the wider region from catastrophe.

Between 2006-2008, almost all Democrats wanted to defund the war in Iraq, which their base was demanding, and a not-insignificant number of Republicans wanted to cut the war loose because it was politically unpopular.

The men that prevented a defeat of American coalition forces and its Iraqi allies were Lieberman and his longtime Republican friend John McCain. For more than two years, it was this unlikely duo, with some assistance from Lindsey Graham, that strengthened the spine of Republicans and weakened the spirits of mindlessly antiwar Democrats by strongly supporting the surge in Iraq, resulting in an increase in troops and a new strategy.

I’ve had conversations with people who were senior Senate staffers during that era, and they’ve said that the Senate was often a single vote away from stopping and defunding the war. Lieberman and McCain stood in the breach. By any reasonable metric, the surge was a resounding success and allowed America and its Iraqi allies to emerge with a clear victory. It was a qualified victory to be sure, but far better than the disastrous defeat that would have otherwise ensued.

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The strategy was unpopular across the board, and while it was the best option available, there was no guarantee of success. McCain staked his presidential campaign on it, and Lieberman staked his political future on it. The surge ultimately paid off, making heroes of men like Gen. David Petraeus. McCain was rewarded with his party’s presidential nomination. Lieberman’s story, however, was different.

Having been chased out of his party and forced to run for reelection as an “independent Democrat,” Lieberman’s political future was already tenuous. His partnership with McCain spelled the end of his viability as a political candidate, something he must have known was the likely outcome. While he had significant bipartisan accomplishments in his last term as chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, as a public servant, he remained a man living on borrowed time. He didn’t bother to seek reelection in 2012. His subsequent involvement in the “No Labels” movement only reiterates that he remained a man with many admirers, but without a party.

Former Vice President Al Gore places his hand on the casket of former Sen. Joe Lieberman during Lieberman's funeral in Stamford, Conn., on Thursday, March 29, 2024. | Bryan Woolston

Understanding why this happened is disillusioning. In the final analysis, Lieberman’s support for the war was not unique. Prominent Democrats such as Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton and Chuck Schumer supported the war. What is unique is that Lieberman, unlike the rest, chose to expend his capital, against his own political self-interest, to win the war, long after the fateful choice to invade had been made. The rest chose their own political skins over the interests of America, innocent Iraqis and the relative stability of the wider Middle East.

Next to George W. Bush, and maybe Dick Cheney, Lieberman is the name that remains most associated with the war. The reasons for this are fairly clear. First, Lieberman, unlike his fellow Democrats, refused to play the backwards-looking game, and chose what was best going forward. Second, Lieberman suffered from the oldest bigotry. He was a target of antisemitic stereotypes and the charge of dual loyalty, entirely without foundation. Other complaints concerned his moderate stances on various social issues, his famous “kiss” of George W. Bush and his opposition to the so-called “public option” in Obamacare.

Apart from Mitt Romney, and maybe Liz Cheney, nobody currently in a position of political prominence has paid anything close to the political price Joe Lieberman did for taking an unpopular stance that was nonetheless necessary for the good of the country.

The context is even more remarkable. Lieberman’s stance in favor of the surge was not undertaken in a vacuum but done in support of the administration that cost him the vice presidency in a close and contested race that ultimately went before the Supreme Court. Imagining such a thing from, say, Donald Trump, is reserved for comedy.

Many politicians have forgotten that, at some point, you need to choose what is truly important and worth spending your political capital on, even at the cost of losing your office; otherwise, you risk becoming irrelevant. This is a mistake that Lieberman didn’t make. His reward was victory for America and its allies. The price — the loss of his party and eventually, his Senate seat — was a price he never regretted paying. That makes Lieberman a great man. If even a tenth of our political leaders had the skill, foresight and bravery of Lieberman, America would be a lot better off. Rest in peace, Senator. May your memory be as big of a blessing to America as your life was.

Cliff Smith is a lawyer and a former congressional staffer. He lives in Washington, D.C., where he works on national security related issues. His views are his own.