It is a brutal irony for George W. Bush that the fourth anniversary of his May 1, 2003, appearance in flight-suit drag before a banner declaring his Iraq War a “Mission Accomplished” falls on the week he is battling Congress for another $100 billion to keep the United States in a fight that has now lasted longer than the country’s involvement in World War II. Congressional leaders who want Bush to acknowledge the failure of his mission would do well to recall another date: October 10, 2002, when House Democratic leader Dick Gephardt asserted that legislation authorizing Bush to dispatch troops to Iraq, which Gephardt had helped draft, would actually avert war by showing Saddam Hussein a united front. Three years later, Gephardt, along with current presidential contender John Edwards, made another declaration: “It was a mistake…. I was wrong.”

That mistake–in which Congress allowed the Administration to manipulate intelligence and play on the fears of Americans after 9/11 to attack a country that posed no threat to the United States–cost Gephardt the trust of his caucus and its grassroots supporters. It also paved the way for his successor, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who voted against the 2002 authorization and who, with Senate majority leader Harry Reid, is now involved in high-stakes negotiations with Bush over whether any constraints will be placed on the President’s perpetual warmaking. The soft benchmarks and timid timeline for withdrawal that Bush promptly vetoed was not the clearly defined exit strategy that Senator Russ Feingold, several Democratic presidential candidates and leading members of the Out of Iraq Caucus in the House, along with this magazine, have advocated. In fact, it’s a slower exit than the American people want, as evidenced by numerous recent polls. Rarely have the stars of principle and prudent politics been so favorably aligned, and yet, as we go to press, Congress seems poised to capitulate to the demands of an unpopular President.

Perhaps recognizing that its hand was weak, in the runup to the veto Bush’s executive branch refused to negotiate in good faith with an equal branch of government, instead coordinating a campaign of character assassination. The White House sent out press releases on the taxpayers’ dime with statements like “House of Representatives votes for failure in Iraq.” Presidential aides referred to Pelosi and Reid as “defeatists” who would neglect troops in the field–despite the fact that the vetoed legislation would have given Bush every penny he is seeking plus an extra $4 billion (even worse, gaping loopholes in the bill would have allowed continued funding for an estimated 125,000 contractor mercenaries now in Iraq and for tens of thousands of soldiers to remain indefinitely as trainers of Iraqi security forces, which are riddled with militia death squads).

Reid, an ex-boxer, has been aggressive and refreshingly blunt in arguing that “this war is lost” and that Iraq will never be stabilized if Congress lets Bush continue on his chosen course. It is the duty of Congress to check and balance the White House, especially when a President refuses to recognize the futility and mounting cost of an illegal war and occupation overwhelmingly opposed by the Iraqi people. Democratic leaders must recognize that they have already compromised too much. In the face of crude and dishonest Administration-driven attacks, Pelosi and Reid must not back down. To blink now would put Democratic leaders on a road to future admissions of a mistake as serious as Gephardt’s–and every bit as disastrous for our Republic, which functions well only when warmaking Presidents are held in check by a courageous Congress.