Amidst the weeping and wailing and the chest-beating and garment-rending which is currently emanating from the anti-war crowd, I would like to interject some optimism about ending the war in Iraq.
It is cautious optimism, to be sure... but optimism nonetheless.
Now, I do not make light of the fact that Congress just voted to give Bush a few more months' funding for the war, and that during that time period hundreds of U.S. soldiers (and thousands of Iraqis, no doubt) will die. That is a tragedy which cannot be made light of in any way, shape or form. But this tragedy should be laid squarely at the feet of President Bush, and (to a lesser extent) Republicans in Congress. Yes, the Democrats acquiesced in the end, too... but make no mistake about it, this is Bush's fault -- just as the entire war has been, all along.
But I remain optimistic that, during the next round of funding (which will begin debate in Congress as early as July), things will be different. And the difference will be a widening split within congressional Republican ranks. Which will make all the difference.
The good and the bad of where we stand today
To begin with, we must take honest stock of where we are today. Yes, Congress passed a bill to fund the war for a few more months. That's obviously bad, but not entirely unexpected.
Back in January, I predicted this exact outcome. Here's what I had to say back then:
This isn't going to make me any friends on the left, but it must be said.
It takes a lot of time for Congress to end a war, even an unpopular one.
. . .
While there are strident voices on the left crying for immediate troop withdrawal, they need to realize that this is going to be a long, hard slog. I say this not to dampen their enthusiasm, or in any attempt to convince people to "tone it down." Far from it. More power to the vocal anti-war folks! Their voices are a key ingredient in how the war will end. I merely counsel patience and stamina, because it's going to take a while to build consensus in Washington.
. . .
For the realists out there, I'd like to outline how I think Congress will end the war. There will be four stages to this exit strategy. The first of these has already begun, with dueling concurrent resolutions to condemn Bush's escalation of troops, which are already making their way through the Senate. The second stage will come when the Pentagon runs out of this year's money for Iraq. The third stage will come when next year's budget for the war gets passed. The fourth stage is when the soldiers finally come home.
. . .
[About the second stage described above, which is where we are today:]
...Congress is just not going to cut off all funding at this point. Democrats will be so terrified of the "you aren't supporting the troops in the field" mantra from the right, that they will vote more money for Iraq. One way or another, Bush will get some more money, albeit with lots of strings attached.
. . .
More Iraq war money approved will send the anti-war folks into apoplexy, it should be noted. This is good, as they will need to keep the pressure up on the issue all spring and summer long. Marches, rallies, petitions, TV appearances, anything they can muster. Keep Congress' feet to the fire! Show the growing public support for withdrawal in every way you can.
So where are we, today? Let's examine the good points and the bad about how the political process has played out so far.
Back in January, the tally of hard anti-war Democrats in the House was estimated to be around 70. Recently, though, 171 House members and 29 senators voted for a straight-up "get out now" bill, which shows that the anti-war wing is gaining strength. That's a good thing.
Unfortunately, only 142 House representatives voted against yesterday's bill, and only 14 in the Senate voted likewise. That shows a certain softness to the anti-war caucus. That's a bad thing.
Overall, though, this group is gaining in strength, and will continue to do so (in my opinion). And that's a really good thing, because it's moving in the right direction.
The final bill didn't contain Jack Murtha's troop readiness language, which is a very bad thing, and which disappointed me personally. While I knew the Democrats were going to eventually cave on the timetable, I was extremely discouraged to see that they didn't fight harder for Murtha's language.
And completely out of left field, Democrats snuck in the minimum wage increase into the final bill. I certainly didn't see that one coming, but it is indeed a very good thing. Democrats need to get some of their prime issues actually passed through Congress and onto Bush's desk, or else the media will begin running endless "Democrats aren't doing anything" stories. But while giving the hardest-working Americans two more dollars an hour is great news, it is ultimately irrelevant to the subject at hand.
The best news that comes from the current situation is that Bush and the GOP now absolutely own the war issue. Because they're all "doubling down" on their "surge" strategy; when it eventually fails, they will not be able to blame the Democrats. Oh, sure, they'll try to... but my guess is that it just won't wash with the public at large.
Overall, I did get a few details wrong, but I still I stand by my predictions from January. Although many disagreed with me at the time; I have always tried to see things as they realistically are, and not the way I wished the world (and Washington) worked.
We don't have the votes
Which brings me to an unpleasant task: refuting the current emotional arguments being made by the anti-war crowd. Believe me, I share the same goals they do of ending the war as soon as possible, but I also see it as my duty to correct some misconceptions.
There are three main arguments being made about why what the Democrats did this week was wrong, and why they should be held accountable. All three of these arguments can be answered with one simple statement: We don't have the votes.
Argument number one: The voters elected a Democratic majority last November so that they would end the war. So end it already!
Refutation: We do not have a parliamentary system. A simple majority does not equate to: "We own Congress." We cannot override a Bush veto (or, for that matter, successfully impeach anybody) without the solid support of two-thirds of both houses of Congress. We just do not have those votes.
Argument number two: Instead of caving, the Democrats should have sent the same bill (the one with timetables that Bush vetoed) back to him again and again and again (dammit!), and not send him anything else.
Refutation: The bill that Bush vetoed got to his desk for one reason and one reason only: he actually wanted to veto such a measure. Senate Republicans did not block the bill with the threat of a filibuster (cloture vote), because the White House told them to let it go through. Senate Republicans could have easily blocked it, though -- the bill passed with less than 60 votes, remember. But if Democrats tried to grandstand by sending the same bill back over and over again, Senate Republicans wouldn't even let it get to the floor. We. Do. Not. Have. The. Votes.
Argument number three: Don't pass anything. Bush had his chance, he vetoed it, so stop all the funding by just refusing to pass anything. By default, the war runs out of money, and the troops come home. Bush can't even veto it, because it doesn't reach his desk -- he can't veto something that doesn't exist.
Refutation: Cutting off all funds without providing a detailed (and funded) plan for withdrawal would be an irresponsible disaster. Remember the government shutdown under Clinton vs. Gingrich? National Parks and all other federal sites didn't have to "withdraw" -- they just went out and locked the gates, and didn't let anyone in. This would not be possible with 150,000-plus soldiers in Iraq. If the money ran out, they would be stranded. Responsible people know this, and that is why Democrats passed a bill to continue the funding. Bush painted them into a corner, and they knew it. While the stridently anti-war voices insist everyone would applaud such a cutoff of funds, the polls just do not back them up. A huge majority of the American public wants the war to end, true -- but only a small percentage of them want it to end tomorrow. The "middle of the road" on the issue (which most people support) is a planned, phased withdrawal over six months or a year. On this one, we don't just not have the votes, but -- more importantly -- we don't even have public opinion behind such an idea.
A summer of protest
I went down to the demonstration
To get my fair share of abuse
Singin', "We're gonna vent our frustration
If we don't, we're gonna blow a 50-amp fuse."
-- The Rolling Stones, "You Can't Always Get What You Want"
John Edwards has been calling for protests this weekend, during Memorial Day celebrations. His "Support the troops, end the war" campaign is trying to use the holiday to raise people's awareness on the issue.
Now, it's debatable whether this is a good tactic or not. It seems calculated to offend some people who might wind up agreeing with the cause, so it should be seen as a risky idea. But I have to admit the timing of it is absolutely perfect; seeing as how Congress waited until now to give Bush more money for his war.
But regardless of whether you choose to eat hot dogs and drink beer at the beach this weekend or decide to demonstrate against the war, the voice of the people needs to be heard this summer. Politicians (especially those Republicans in districts with slim majorities) need to be reminded over and over again that if there are 150,000 troops in Iraq on election day next year, they are going to be voted out of office.
I don't know what ANSWER and the other major anti-war organizational groups are planning for this summer, but I sincerely hope they're planning something. Several somethings, as a matter of fact. Pressure needs to be applied in a very public and media-savvy way; to unequivocally remind the mainstream media that the anti-war position is not just the mainstream position now, but the position of an overwhelming majority of the country.
It's admittedly a bumpersticker slogan, but it will ring true this summer if enough bodies get out in the streets and tell the politicians how they feel: "If the people lead, then the leaders will follow."
September, I remember...
A love once new has now grown old.
-- Simon and Garfunkel, "April, Come She Will"
My final prediction from my January article:
So while a few Republicans are jumping ship now on legally meaningless concurrent resolutions, by summertime it will be a full-scale rout. Republicans will have the time and distance from Bush to say, "Well, we tried the surge, but it obviously didn't work. It's time to bring the troops home." Some of them are already saying this publicly in one way or another: "If the surge isn't working by summer or fall, I won't support it any more." As time goes by this summer, more and more of them will abandon Bush, publicly.
It's impossible to tell from this distance what form this will take, but at this point, Republicans in Congress are going to have had enough -- and they're going to tell Bush in no uncertain terms to "declare victory" and start bringing troops home. And to bring enough of them home by election day that they have a prayer of keeping their jobs.
Sooner or later, a delegation of congressional Republicans is going to knock on the White House's door, and tell Bush that "it's over."
Now, there's already some doom and gloom appearing over this issue. Some are saying that "nothing will be different in September," but I beg to differ. This is where the optimism comes into play. This is where the love affair between the GOP in Congress and President Bush will not just have "grown old," but be completely over.
Glenn Greenwald, a respected lefty blogger for Salon.com, articulates the pessimistic view of what will happen this autumn better than anyone else I've read. But I just don't buy it -- for two reasons. The first is that it doesn't take into account the growing panic among Republicans in Congress over the Iraq mess. The second is that it doesn't take into account the force majeure that could come out of the Iraqi parliament.
In September, General Petraeus will issue a report to Congress, and the public, about how the surge is working. Best case (for the White House) is going to be: "We're making some progress, we've had some setbacks, but we think it's a good idea to continue and stay the course." Worst case is if Petraeus actually says: "It's not working, we need to try something else;" but that should be seen as a remote possibility, knowing how loathe generals are to admit failure.
This is the point at which the Republicans' solidarity on the issue will fracture. They will have heard all summer long (from their Republican constituents, mind you) that it's time to get out of Iraq -- and they will have the political cover they need ("The surge isn't working out") to switch their votes and start voting against the war. The only question in my mind is whether enough of them will face up to reality to override a veto. We need a total of 290 in the House, and 67 in the Senate, remember.
I think we'll get that many in the House, but the Senate is going to be close (remember, not all of them are up for election next year).
Bush even trotted out a plausible "Plan B" scenario in his press conference yesterday, although most of the mainstream press missed it. He flatly stated that if the Iraqi government asked us to leave, we would indeed leave. He contradicted this elsewhere in the press conference by asserting that pulling out prematurely (in his opinion) would mean: "Al Qaeda would follow us over here;" and he made no attempt to reconcile these two diametrically-opposed positions (not that the reporters present asked him about this apparent doublethink, of course).
I could see Bush, after being told flatly by Republican congressfolks that it was time to pull out, picking up the phone and telling Maliki that it was time for the Iraqi government to ask us to leave. This would give enormous political cover for Bush and the Republicans, and would provide a convenient scapegoat in case the pullout created a bigger disaster: "Hey, they told us to leave, what were we supposed to do?"
But one way or another, in the September/October timeframe, I foresee the end of the Iraq war being written into law by Congress. And that's a real and honest reason for optimism now. We may be at the lowest ebb of the process -- emotionally -- for the anti-war cause right now. But things are going to be looking up, very soon now.
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