For the Republic

For the Republic

Can a single man force a nation to fight an unpopular war? Here’s how Congress can stand up to Bush.


World opinion is against it. The American people are against it. The Democratic Party is against it. The Congress of the United States is against it. The Iraq Study Group is against it. The Iraqi people are against it. The Iraqi government is against it. Many Republican lawmakers are against it. The top brass are against it. But George W. Bush is going to do it: send 21,500 more troops into Iraq. Can a single man force a nation to fight a war it does not want to fight, expand a war it does not want to expand–possibly to other countries? If he can, is that nation any longer a democracy in any meaningful sense? Is its government any longer a constitutional republic? If not, how can democratic rule and the republican form of government be restored? These are the unwelcome questions that President Bush’s decision has forced on the country.

The troop increase itself is not likely to change much in Iraq. Troop strength fell to about 115,000 in early 2004. By late 2005 it had risen to 160,000, only to fall to 130,000 again in mid-2006. Neither the 2005 increase (much larger than the one now ordered by Bush) nor the 2006 ebb had any demonstrable effect on the course of the war. In any case, almost everyone declares by now that there is no military solution in Iraq, only a political one. But the hard truth is that there is probably no political solution, either. Certainly, it is beyond the power of the United States to achieve one. Only Iraqis have the capacity to solve their political problems, yet there is no sign that they are headed in this direction. On the contrary, they are sliding deeper into a sort of half-smothered, underground civil war of extraordinary brutality. The professed mission of the American troops is to stop this internal war. But how can that be done with an M-16? “Whom do you shoot at–the Sunni or the Shia?” Senator John Warner has appropriately asked. Perhaps both? In that case, which Iraqis are American troops fighting for?

The only thing new about the increase is its prime-time announcement by the President and its label, the “surge.” But the Iraq War is not going to be won by a label–or by the very modest military step that it refers to, either. Indeed, the problem with American policy was never that it chose this or that bad strategy in Iraq but that it planted itself in Iraq at all. Once that was done, all strategies were bad, condemning the United States to stumble from error to error–doing more of the fighting, doing less; attacking Shiites, attacking Sunnis; helping Shiites, helping Sunnis; writing a Constitution, letting “the Iraqis” write a Constitution; disbanding the Baath Party, inviting back the Baathists; letting Kurds opt out of Iraq, dragging them into Iraq. Now, four years into the game, American policy has gone from mistaken to unintelligible–its actions not so much misguided as irrelevant to the ghastly conflict now under way. The killing is real, but Bush’s war is a fantasy.

The President, then, has not bought victory, but he may have bought more time. But for what? One much-mentioned possibility is a wider war, perhaps against Iran. That possibility was explicit in his announcement that he will “interrupt the flow of support from Iran and Syria,” “seek out and destroy the networks providing advanced weaponry and training to our enemies in Iraq” and also deploy Patriot missiles to Gulf allies. The very implausibility of the “surge” as a solution forces us all to ask now what will happen when it fails. When the President said his support of the Maliki government is not “open-ended,” he fanned dovish hopes that his escalation was one last roll of the dice, after which he would order a withdrawal. However, nothing else he said supported that prospect. It was only from the Maliki government, not from the American intervention in Iraq, that Bush withdrew open-ended support. Regarding the war itself, he was still staying the course. “Failure in Iraq would be a disaster for the United States,” he said. And, “for the safety of our people, America must succeed in Iraq.” The new Defense Secretary, Robert Gates, said to the press, “At this pivotal moment, the credibility of the United States is on the line in Iraq.” Nothing in these statements suggested a readiness to withdraw.

Unwanted war, the threat of a wider, even less wanted war, a constitutional crisis: The United States has experienced this combination before, and not so long ago. The war of course was Vietnam, ending in defeat in 1975, and the President was Richard Nixon, driven out of office under threat of certain impeachment the year before. Commentators of every stripe have been reaching back to this period for analogies. Is the present moment a repeat of 1968, when President Johnson, facing defeat in his renomination bid in the Democratic primaries, resigned from the campaign and opened peace negotiations; or of 1970, when Nixon widened the war by invading Cambodia and touched off an explosion of protest around the country that forced him to reverse course (and led Congress to prohibit funding for Cambodian operations); or of 1974 and 1975, when the Nixon Administration and the war ended (not accidentally) seriatim? Iraq is different from Vietnam and Bush is different from Nixon, yet the elements of the crisis are the same, as if we were still looking through the same kaleidoscope but after it had been given a shake. Again, we have the war launched on the basis of deceptions, again the duel between popular opinion and executive power, again executive secrecy, again the contempt for law, again the smearing of political opponents as abettors of the foe, again wiretapping, again defiance of Congress, again the imperial pretensions.

But more important than the similarities is the direct continuity between the two crises. The war in Iraq was framed as the culmination of a long campaign to overcome what the current President’s father called the “Vietnam syndrome.” The goal–probably the most important of the many aims of the whole enterprise–was to demonstrate that the United States had at last restored its ability, thrown into question by Vietnam, to determine the political future of nations (to accomplish regime change) through the use of military force. And this aim was in turn a pillar of the grandiose ambition, announced in White House documents, of achieving global dominance for the United States. Likewise, the most important theme of Bush’s other usurpations–for example, of power to wiretap without a warrant, in contravention of statute, and to imprison and torture citizens as well as foreigners without due process–was to swell the power of the presidency at home. For in the minds of the Bush officials, Nixon’s pre-impeachment presidency was not a cautionary tale but a model to be imitated, as Vice President Cheney, for one, has stated on many occasions. It is not only the Vietnam syndrome but the Watergate syndrome that they want to overcome. If the keynote of Nixon’s character was covertness (not for nothing was he called Tricky Dick), then the keynote of Bush’s character is brazenness: He seeks to carry out in broad daylight, as his formal right, the usurpations that Nixon committed under cover of night.

Thus, the deepest theme of the whole three-decade story, now presented in almost outlandish caricature by the President’s tug of war with the nation and the world over Iraq, is the issue of power and how it shall be constituted in the United States, and the deepest question the crisis presents is whether this country will continue to be a constitutional republic or bow down to the new system of one-man rule asserted by President Bush. It’s an issue that must concern every citizen, and the antiwar movement is in fact reviving it. It is calling its renewed effort a “peace surge.” Meanwhile, Congress faces concrete choices. For the time being it is picking its way through a minefield of remedies. Should it simply pass a resolution disapproving of the troop increase, as favored by Senator Carl Levin? Should it aim at a reauthorization for the war on the ground that its fundamental purposes defined in the original authorization have changed, as proposed by Senator Edward Kennedy? Should it condition new funding on policy requirements (no more escalation, no wider war), as proposed by Representative Jack Murtha? Should it provide funds only to protect and withdraw the troops, as proposed by Representative Jerrold Nadler? Should it simply set a date for withdrawal and look at cutting off funds after that date, as proposed by Senator Russell Feingold? Should it attempt to pull many of these elements together in a broad proposal, such as that being advanced by Progressive Caucus co-chairs Barbara Lee and Lynn Woolsey? Or will it be better to pursue the myriad investigations that may produce the evidence for impeachment?

The experience of the earlier round of the crisis in the Nixon years offers food for thought. That episode presents a paradox. Faced with the most dangerous President in American history so far, the public passed up the easy route for getting rid of him–voting him out of power in 1972–and instead chose the harder route of impeachment two years later. More paradoxical still, opposing the unpopular war had a political cost attached, whereas impeachment did not. The challenge to Nixon’s misguided war policies in 1972 by Democratic candidate Senator George McGovern, leading to Nixon’s landslide re-election that year, created a horror of opposing any President’s war policies that has paralyzed the Democrats down to this day. But the more drastic remedy of impeachment produced no such backlash, leading in fact to huge Democratic gains in the Congressional races that fall and to Jimmy Carter’s election as President in 1976. It is true that between the 1972 re-election and the 1974 impeachment, American combat operations in Vietnam had ended. Therefore, a vote for impeachment was no longer a vote against the war. The curse of looking “weak” on national security had been lifted. Still, it remains a noteworthy fact, on which today’s Congress members may want to reflect, that the drastic remedy of impeachment was more acceptable to the public than the apparently less drastic one of defunding a rogue President’s war. Should Congress, then, impeach President Bush while letting him fight his war? Decency and respect for human life forbid such a conclusion. What is quite permissible, however, is to recall that investigations that could lead to impeachment may, as one ingredient of Congress’s activity, strengthen rather than weaken the efforts to end the war. Investigations, resolutions, legislation, not to mention citizen action, can all find their place as part of the common effort. For the Republic, for peace, let all these surge together.

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