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Senator Smith sees the light

A little late, maybe, but his about-face seems sincere

Oregon Sen. Gordon Smith is not known for sweeping pronouncements that make national headlines. He's usually more comfortable working in relative obscurity on legislation he believes will benefit the state he represents.

So it was something of a surprise to read of his floor speech last week denouncing the U.S. strategy in Iraq as "absurd" and "even criminal."

Smith said he was "at the end of my rope" over the continuing deaths of American troops and the financial cost of the war, which totals hundreds of billions of dollars. The man who headed President George W. Bush's re-election campaign in Oregon in 2004 and who has steadfastly supported the war and the administration now says he would never have voted for the war if he had known that the intelligence given to the American public was faulty.

The address late Thursday night landed Smith on ABC's "This Week" alongside Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., soon to be chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Biden characterized Smith's change of position another sign of a "gigantic shift" in U.S. attitudes toward the war. We're inclined to agree. Cynical observers might point to the timing of Smith's remarks, coming as they did the night before the 109th Congress adjourned for the year and more than a month after the election that swept his fellow Republicans from power. It's also true that Smith must run for re-election in 2008. Oregon Democrats, flush with their own success in the November election, already are looking for a strong challenger for Smith.

So were Smith's remarks merely self-serving rhetoric, made with an eye on the voters back home?

Perhaps to some extent. Smith is, after all, a politician, and politicians who don't get re-elected have to find another line of work.

But we suspect there is more to Smith's about-face than mere self-preservation. It takes some courage to break ranks with your own party's administration, even a weakened one. And Smith's remarks are certain to anger some Oregon Republicans still smarting over Nov. 7 and the growing chorus of criticism over the debacle in Iraq.

Would it have been helpful for Smith to take this step much earlier? Of course. But we'll take it for what it appears to be: a heartfelt reversal in response to a military operation that nearly everyone but the president and his inner circle now admits has failed to achieve its goals.

Welcome aboard, Senator.