In April 2001 I was invited to Washington, DC, by a group of Republican Congressmen collectively known as the Theme Team. The subject was Iraq. It seems that the Theme Team, responsible for monitoring the ideological pulse of America, was somewhat perturbed that a self-described Republican and former Marine officer, not to mention a former UN weapons inspector, was trash-talking America’s Iraq policy. While this sort of action might have been acceptable during the tenure of a Democratic President like Bill Clinton, it was not part of the grand design when it came to the presidency of George W. Bush.
The conference room was packed with more than seventy Representatives and their staffs. I provided an opening in which I stressed that the case being made against Saddam Hussein and Iraq, centered as it was on the issue of WMD, did not hold water. I chastised the Republican lawmakers with a warning: If they continued to support the policy of confronting Saddam’s Iraq over a trumped-up charge, they would not only get America involved in a war it could not win but would end up destroying the credibility of the Republican Party, and turn control of the Congress, and eventually the Presidency, to the Democrats. There were questions asked, and answers given, and in the end most thanked me for what they called an “illuminating” meeting.
Then they proceeded to do nothing.
Today that warning has become reality. America is bogged down in a losing war in Iraq, the Republican Party lies in shambles over its partisan support of a policy that was never debated or discussed but rather rubber-stamped and the Democrats now control the Senate and the House of Representatives. There is a very real chance that the Democrats will take control of the presidency in 2008, since the debacle that is Iraq will not be resolved prior to that date.
President Bush will go down in history with complete ownership of the Iraq War. The Republican Party will also be tarnished by this legacy. It doesn’t matter that the policies of sanctions-based containment and regime change, which set in motion the events leading up to the US-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003, were conceived of and implemented by Clinton, or that the Democrats in Congress were as complicit (and incompetent) in their support of those policies through their “bipartisan” support of both the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998 (which set America’s policy toward Iraq as regime change) and the War Authorization Resolution of 2002, which punted away Congress’s constitutional responsibilities when it came to the declaration of war. To most Americans, the war in Iraq is a Republican war, and blame has been placed squarely at the doorstep of the Republican Commander in Chief who got us there, George W. Bush.
In his recent State of the Union address, Bush spent a great deal of time speaking about Iraq and his plans for how to achieve “victory” there. The Democrats, in their various responses, rightly criticized the President and his plans as unrealistic and insupportable. The stage has been set for an old-fashioned showdown between executive and legislative power, where the advantages are stacked in favor of those who control the power of the purse (i.e., Congress), since the President’s new “surge” strategy hinges not only on the availability of troops to be surged but also on the money to pay for it.
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When it comes to Iraq, newly empowered Democrats in Congress are getting a free ride, so to speak. While the honorable (and right) thing to do would be to combine their just criticism of the President’s policy with a vision (and corresponding plan) of their own on how to proceed in Iraq, the Democrats instead seem to have taken the less risky and more politically savvy path of simply pointing an accusatory finger at the President, demanding that he fix what he broke. There is no coherent, broad-based Democratic plan for Iraq other than to criticize the President. In the case of Iraq, Democrats have demonstrated that they are just as capable of letting American service members die in order to preserve their own political ambition as their Republican counterparts are.
While this is abominable, the Democrats will most likely get away with it. After all, the horror that is present-day Iraq did not happen on their watch. Iraq is a Republican debacle, and it will continue to play out as such politically on the domestic front.
If I were to be invited to go to Washington today and speak to the Democratic equivalent of the Republican Theme Team, I would spend very little time on the issue of Iraq. Right or wrong, the Iraq War was a product of domestic American politics, not any genuine threat to national security, and as such the solution for Iraq will be derived not from whatever happens inside Iraq, surge or no surge, but rather from what happens here in America. It will take two or more national election cycles for the American electorate to purge Congress of those elements, Republican and Democratic alike, who are responsible for the Iraqi quagmire.
Until American politicians from either party show that they care more about the lives of the men and women in the armed forces who operate in harm’s way than they do about their own political fortunes, we will remain in Iraq. It takes courage to stand up against this war when the tide of public opinion continues to hold out hope for victory. “Doing the right thing” is a thing of the past, it seems. “Doing the politically expedient thing” is the current trend. The American public may have articulated frustration with the course of events in Iraq, but this feeling is derived more from a frustration at being defeated than from any moral outrage over getting involved in a war that didn’t need to be fought in the first place. Congress takes its cues from the American people, and until the American people are as outraged over the mere fact we are in Iraq as they are over the rising costs of the conflict–human, moral and financial–then Congress will continue to dither.
If I were to address a Democrat Theme Team equivalent, I would focus my effort on trying to impress them with the issue that will cost them political power down the road. This issue is Iran. While President Bush, a Republican, remains Commander in Chief, a Democrat-controlled Congress shares responsibility on war and peace from this point on. The conflict in Iraq, although ongoing, is a product of the Republican-controlled past. The looming conflict with Iran, however, will be assessed as a product of a Democrat-controlled present and future. If Iraq destroyed the Republican Party, Iran will destroy the Democrats.
I would strongly urge Congress, both the House of Representatives and the Senate, to hold real hearings on Iran. Not the mealy-mouthed Joe Biden-led hearings we witnessed on Iraq in July-August 2002, where he and his colleagues rubber-stamped the President’s case for war, but genuine hearings that draw on all the lessons of Congressional failures when it came to Iraq. Summon all the President’s men (and women), and grill them on every phrase and word uttered about the Iranian “threat,” especially as it has been linked to nuclear weapons. Demand facts to back up the rhetoric.
Summon the American-Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), or any other lobby promoting confrontation with Iran, to the forefront, so that the warnings they offer in whispers from a back room can be articulated before the American public. Hold these conjurers of doom accountable for their positions by demanding they back them up with hard fact. See if the US intelligence community concurs with the dire warnings put forward by these pro-war lobbyists, and if it doesn’t, ask who, then, is driving US policy toward Iran? Those mandated by public law and subjected to the oversight of Congress? Or others, operating outside any framework representative of the will of the American people?
If a real case, based on facts as they pertain to the genuine national security interests of the United States, can be made for a confrontation with Iran that leads to military conflict, so be it. America should never shy away from defending that which legitimately needs defending. The sacrifice expected of our military forces, while tragic, will be defensible. But if the case for war with Iran is revealed to be as illusory as was the case for war with Iraq, then Congress must take action to stop this conflict from occurring. This is the Democrats’ issue now, the one that will make or break them in 2008 and beyond.
If hearings show no case for war with Iran, then Congress must act to insure that the United States cannot move toward conflict with that nation on the strength of executive dictate alone. As things currently stand, the Bush Administration, emboldened with a vision of the unitary executive unprecedented in our nation’s history, believes it has all of the legal authority it requires when it comes to engaging Iran militarily. The silence of Congress following the President’s decision to dispatch a second carrier battle group to the Persian Gulf has been deafening. The fact that a third carrier battle group (the USS Ronald Reagan) will probably join these two in the near future has also gone unnoticed by most, if not all, in Congress.
The President and his advisers believe that they are acting in accordance with the authorities given to the executive by the US Constitution, and by legislative authority as well, as provided for in both the Authorization for Use of Military Force resolution of September 14, 2001 (after the attacks of September 11, where Congress not only authorized the President to use military force against the perpetrators of the terror attacks but also against those nations deemed to be harboring people or organizations involved in the attacks), and the Authorization of Military Force Against Iraq resolution of October 2002 (where Congress concurred that any presidential action would be “consistent with the United States and other countries continuing to take the necessary actions against international terrorists and terrorist organizations, including those nations, organizations or persons who planned, authorized, committed or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001”).
The National Security Strategy of the United States, most recently promulgated in March 2006, lists Iran as the number-one threat to the United States, not only in terms of its yet-to-be-proven nuclear weapons program but also from its status, as declared by the Bush White House, as the world’s leading state sponsor of terror. The Bush Administration has repeatedly linked Iran with the perpetrators of the 9/11 terror attacks and has accused Iran of harboring people and organizations involved in that attack. If left unchallenged by Congress, the Bush Administration firmly believes it has all of the authority required to initiate military action against Iran without Congressional approval.
This is not an idle statement on my part. One needs only to read the words of President Bush during his recent State of the Union address:
Osama bin Laden declared: “Death is better than living on this earth with the unbelievers among us.” These men are not given to idle words, and they are just one camp in the Islamist radical movement.
In recent times, it has also become clear that we face an escalating danger from Shia extremists who are just as hostile to America, and are also determined to dominate the Middle East.
Many are known to take direction from the regime in Iran, which is funding and arming terrorists like Hezbollah, a group second only to Al Qaeda in the American lives it has taken.
The Shia and Sunni extremists are different faces of the same totalitarian threat. But whatever slogans they chant, when they slaughter the innocent, they have the same wicked purposes: They want to kill Americans, kill democracy in the Middle East and gain the weapons to kill on an even more horrific scale. In the sixth year since our nation was attacked, I wish I could report to you that the dangers have ended. They have not.
And so it remains the policy of this government to use every lawful and proper tool of intelligence, diplomacy, law enforcement and military action to do our duty, to find these enemies and to protect the American people. [Author’s emphasis]
What is unrealized in this passage is the loud applause given by members of Congress to the President’s words.
Democrats in Congress have the opportunity to nip this looming disaster in the bud. The fact that most of the Democratic members of Congress who enjoy tenure voted in favor of the resolutions giving the President such sweeping authority is moot. Democrats are all capable of pleading that they were acting under the influence of a Republican-controlled body and unable to adequately ascertain through effective oversight the genuine state of affairs. This is no longer the case. The Democrats in Congress are in firm control of their own destiny, and with it the destiny of America. A war with Iran will pale in comparison with the current conflict in Iraq. And if there is a war with Iran, this Congress will be held fully accountable.
Democrats should seek immediate legislative injunctions to nullify the War Powers’ authority granted to the President in September 2001 and October 2002 when it comes to Iran. Congress should pass a joint resolution requiring the President to fully consult with Congress about any national security threat that may be posed to the United States from Iran and demand that no military action be initiated by the United States against Iran without a full, constitutionally mandated declaration of war. Those who embrace the notion of a unitary executive will scoff at the concept of a Congressional declaration of war. They hold that the power to make war is not an enumerated power per se. While statutory authorization (i.e., a formal declaration of war) is enumerated in the Constitution, the reality (as reflected by the current War Powers Act) is that the powers of bringing America to a state of war are not so much separated as they are linked and sequenced, with Congress exercising its control over budgetary appropriations and the President through command.
There may well be merit to this line of argument. But one thing is perfectly clear: Only Congress holds the power of the purse. While a President may commit American forces to combat without the consent of Congress (for periods of up to 180 days), he cannot spend money that has not been appropriated. There is, in the passing of any budget, inherent authority given to the President when it comes to national defense. However, Congress can, if it wants to, put specific restrictions on the President’s ability to use the people’s money. A recent example occurred in 1982, when Congress passed the Boland Amendment to restrict funding for executive-sponsored actions, covert and overt, in Nicaragua. While it is in the process of getting a handle on America’s policy vis-à-vis Iran, Congress would do well to pass a resolution that serves as a new Boland Amendment for Iran. Such an amendment could read like this:
An amendment to prohibit offensive military operations, covert or overt, being commenced by the United States of America against the Islamic Republic of Iran, without the expressed consent of the Congress of the United States. This amendment reserves the right of the President, commensurate with the War Powers Act, to carry out actions appropriate for the defense of the United States if attacked by Iran. However, any funds currently appropriated by Congress for use in support of ongoing operations by the United States Armed Forces are hereby prohibited from being allocated for any pre-emptive military action, whether overt or covert in nature, without the expressed prior consent by the Congress of the United States of America.
However it is worded, the impact of such an amendment would be immediate and could forestall any military moves planned by the Bush Administration against Iran until Congress can fully familiarize itself with the true nature of any threat posed to the United States. President Bush seems to be hellbent on making war with Iran. The passage of time is, in effect, the enemy of his Administration’s goals and objectives. By buying the time required to fully study the issues pertaining to Iran, and by forestalling the possibility of immediate pre-emptive action through budgetary restrictions, Congress may very well spare America, and the world, another tragedy like Iraq. If a Democrat-controlled Congress fails to take action, and America finds itself embroiled in yet another Middle East military misadventure, there will be a reckoning at the polls in 2008. It will not bode well for the Democrats currently in power, or those seeking power in the future.