“War is over, if you want it,” declared John Lennon in the thick of the Vietnam nightmare. To the extent that Lennon’s “you” referred to the US Congress, he was right, then and now. The House and Senate have the authority to end the war in Iraq quickly, efficiently and honorably. Claims to the contrary by George W. Bush and his apologists are at odds with every intention of the authors of the Constitution. Which part of “Congress shall have the power to declare war… to make rules for the government and regulation of the land and naval forces…to make all laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into execution the foregoing powers” does the White House fail to understand? Unfortunately, it may be the same part that cautious Congressional leaders have trouble comprehending.
Democrats gained control of Congress in November with the charge to bring the occupation to a swift conclusion. Yet, as we mark the fourth anniversary of the war, the story of the 110th Congress still seems to be one of an opposition party struggling to come to grips with its authority to upend a President’s misguided policies. Nothing has illustrated the lack of direction so agonizingly as the debates over nonbinding resolutions opposing the troop surge; weeks went into advancing measures that, as their names confirmed, were inconsequential. For a time, it seemed as if House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who has been so effective on the domestic front, was ceding any real leadership role on foreign policy.
With the announcement of spending legislation that includes benchmarks for progress in Iraq, and a plan to begin withdrawing troops if those benchmarks are unmet, Pelosi has begun to define a Democratic opposition to Bush’s policies. But she has not gone nearly far enough. While Democratic leaders are finally arguing for a withdrawal timeline, it is not the right one. Theoretically, the plan would create the potential for withdrawal of some troops in six months. Realistically, because it lacks adequate monitoring mechanisms–Pelosi says determinations about the benchmarks would be a “subjective call”–the best bet is that even if the Democratic plan were to overcome all the hurdles blocking its enactment, there would be no withdrawals for more than a year.
Forcing Americans and Iraqis to die for Bush’s delusions for another year while emptying the Treasury at a rate of more than $1 billion a week is unconscionable. That is why House members who have battled hardest to end the war are so frustrated with Pelosi’s approach. “This plan would require us to believe whatever the President would tell us about progress that was being made,” says Representative Maxine Waters, speaking for the bipartisan Out of Iraq Caucus. Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Lynn Woolsey has been blunter, saying of the legislation, “There’s no enforcement mechanism.”
Waters and Woolsey are right. While we respect efforts by antiwar Democrats like Jim McDermott and Jerrold Nadler to negotiate with Pelosi in hopes of improving the legislation, conservative Blue Dog Democrats have already signaled that the price of their support will be the removal of any teeth put into the plan by progressives. Worse, they have tampered with the legislation in ways that may even encourage Bush’s interventionist tendencies: The Democratic proposal for a timeline originally included a provision that would have required Bush to seek Congressional approval before using military force against Iran. But under pressure from conservative members of her caucus and lobbyists from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Pelosi removed the language. By first including the provision and then removing it, Pelosi and her aides have given Bush an opening to claim that he does not require Congressional approval for a wider war.
The haggling over compromises points up the flaw in Pelosi’s approach: It is too soft, too slow, too open to lobbying mischief and abuse by a President who has done nothing but abuse Congress for six years. America and the world are not crying out for a timeline that might begin extracting troops from Iraq a year from now. Almost 200 American soldiers, and thousands of Iraqis, have died since the Democrats took control of Congress. To accept that the war will go on for another year, at the least, is to accept that the death toll will continue to mount.
Democrats should recognize that the time has come to use the full power accorded Congress in time of war: the power of the purse. As Senator Russ Feingold says, “Some will claim that cutting off funding for the war would endanger our brave troops on the ground. Not true. The safety of our servicemen and -women in Iraq is paramount, and we can and should end funding for the war without putting our troops in further danger.”
Instead of negotiating with Bush to give him another year of his war before facing consequences, Democrats should refuse to write another blank check. They should instead support Representative Barbara Lee’s proposal to fully fund the withdrawal of US soldiers and military contractors from Iraq. Lee would give military commanders the resources they need to withdraw all troops by the end of the year by mandating that emergency supplemental funding be used only for that purpose.
There may not be enough Democratic and renegade Republican votes to win House passage of Lee’s legislation–at least not initially. But tremendous educational and practical progress can be made by just saying no, as loudly as possible, to a President who has not gotten enough resistance from Congress. Setting up a conflict between Bush’s desire to keep troops in Iraq through the end of his presidency and a plan to bring them home this year sharpens the debate at a time when the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll shows that a majority of Americans now favor setting a clear deadline. Even as Bush blusters on about staying the course–or whatever the slogan of the moment may be–he is feeling the pressure to end this war. Indeed, he has already split with Vice President Cheney and other Administration hardliners on the issue of engaging diplomatically with Iran and Syria.
No matter what the ultimate exit strategy, engaging in regional diplomacy to help contain the civil war in Iraq and provide more international assistance to the Iraqi people is an essential step in repositioning the United States to be a constructive force in the region, as opposed to serving as a catalyst for a wider sectarian war. The Bush Administration’s dawning recognition of this fact will be heightened and extended only if war foes maintain their resolve. If the debate in Congress is about whether to attach a few soft benchmarks to Bush’s request for more money to maintain the occupation on his terms, he will feel little sense of urgency. But if the debate is about whether to provide only the money needed to bring the troops home, Bush will understand that time is running out for his strategy–and that he can no longer afford to casually dismiss diplomacy and the logic of withdrawal.