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The Beginning Of The End Of The Iraq War [Part 3]

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Part 3 -- Political Compromise

[This article is in three parts. Part 1 ran Wednesday and dealt with the Republicans' increasing signals that they're ready to desert Bush en masse come September. Part 2 ran yesterday and listed the major tactical options Democrats have for ending the war through legislation.]

 

Part 2 of this article offered an enumerated list of legislative tactics for Democrats to use in order to end the Iraq war. Since I will be referring to these options in this final installment, allow me to preface my remarks with a summary of this list (so you don't have to keep clicking back and forth to see what I'm talking about):

(1)  Timelines

(2)  Milestones

(3)  Implement the Baker / Hamilton Iraq Survey Group (ISG) report

(4)  Repeal the Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF)

(5)  Pass Murtha's troop readiness standards

(6)  Cut the purse strings off

(6a)  Force the Pentagon to draw up a withdrawal plan, then fund only that plan

(6b)  Pass "X" amount of money, and tell Bush that's all he's going to get

Any of these options, to varying degrees, would most likely be acceptable to congressional Democrats. It's merely a question of which legislative tactics are seen as being more effective towards the goal of ending the war. So the real question becomes: which of these would gain the most Republican support?

Now, the best possible scenario is if President Bush himself decides the war is unwinnable, and announces he's withdrawing troops and will work with the Democrats to hammer out a way to get them out of Iraq soon. But I'm not exactly holding my breath waiting for this to happen, if you know what I mean.

The second-best is if he is forced to fake it. This may actually have a chance of happening. If a large enough group of congressional Republicans marched down to the White House and told Bush that they were ready to overturn his veto and, by doing so, hand a huge political victory to the Democrats, then maybe they could convince him to "lead" the effort -- and in the process, save some face for Republicans.

If Bush gave a speech to America after Petraeus' report, cherry-picked whatever good news the report offers, and sweepingly declared victory in Iraq, then both he and the Republicans don't have to talk about "losing" a war. He can take the position that the "surge" has now "worked," and that he's going to immediately start to implement the ISG report's suggestions and start drawing down the American troops in Iraq.

This is a big deal to them, politically. Although the vast majority of Americans will see through such a smoke screen, Bush's base has proven time and time again to have an almost infinite capacity for believing whatever comes out of Bush's mouth.

Bush could then "work with" the Democrats in Congress to produce "a bill acceptable to both sides," which he will then sign. Bush will see himself "leading" the Democrats on the issue. And since it would have Bush's imprimatur, Republicans could vote for it without paying a political price from within their own party (unlike the circular firing squad they've got going on the immigration issue, for instance).

That's the rosy scenario -- that Bush actually admits that it's time to go (after some heavy arm-twisting by the congressional Republican leadership). The more realistic scenario is that he's going to veto anything that comes before him, as he did in the spring. And Democrats are going to need 60 to 70 votes in the House, and 17 or 18 votes in the Senate in order to overturn a Bush veto.

The big question Democrats should be asking themselves is whether to use a carrot or a stick to either (respectively) entice or threaten Republicans over to the "end the war" side. Probably a little of both is going to be necessary.

Let's look at that list of legislative tactics, and try to see it through the lens of a Republican. A Republican, mind you, who is terrified of being chucked out of office next year, and knows that getting on board the "end the war" bandwagon may be his or her only chance of getting re-elected.

 

Option (1) -- timetables -- might be attractive to both sides of the aisle because there are so many opportunities to tinker with the specifics. How long will it take? How many soldiers come home, and when? How many stay behind? What other timetables should be in the bill? This might give Republicans enough give-and-take to claim some small victories in the language of the bill. Democrats can give up these small victories, yet still hold firm on the hard deadline aspect, if they play their cards right.

Option (2) -- milestones -- may be attractive to Republicans because it allows them to shift the blame for losing the war from Bush (and themselves) to a third party: the Iraqi government. The Democrats may not go this route, though, since it would take more time before soldiers actually started coming home. In other words, this may have been acceptable this past January, but it is likely not going to be come September.

Option (3) -- the ISG report -- will probably not be a bill in and of itself, but rather language supporting the ISG report which Republicans may insert into whatever Iraq bill is up for consideration. Their leadership is already publicly talking about this option as a possibility, so it should be seen as the Republican's starting point in the negotiations. The White House is even already running this up the flagpole -- from yesterday's Washington Post column by David Ignatius:

One way to describe the current White House mind-set might be "muddling through." Certainly, that seems a fair description of Iraq policy. "In Bush's view, we are not on the edge of failure or of blindingly visible success," says the senior official. Bush wants to see his troop-surge policy through, but his aides see a successful surge as a transition to a Baker-Hamilton approach that reduces the U.S. military presence in Iraq.

One wonders why the ISG report is so appealing to them now, when it was almost completely ignored when it came out (over six months ago); but if that's how they want to save face, then so be it. Just incorporate some of the ISG language into whatever bill does emerge.

Option (4) -- repealing the AUMF -- is a tricky one. Republicans will know that it's a powerful tool, and also that Bush may very well ignore it or fight it, but they could also spin this one to the folks back home as another version of: "declare victory and go home" -- which would go over a lot better in a Republican district than: "I finally realized the Democrats were right, Bush is an idiot, and Iraq is hopeless." Republicans could spin this one as: "We achieved our initial objectives, but the Iraqis are stubbornly determined to have a civil war. We tried to convince them not to, but if they insist on doing so, then we're leaving."

But the danger remains that Bush will fight this by finally testing the War Powers Act before the Supreme Court. This is another version of "stall, and kick the ball down the road for the next president to deal with," which seems to many to be Bush's ulterior motive. But if Bush publicly speaks out against this option, Republicans may find it even harder to vote for.

It would, however, be one of the two best options for enacting the end of the war, so it may be the one to fight the hardest for. Even if Bush did ignore Congress and take it to the Supreme Court, in the court of public opinion Bush will indeed be held accountable. Think about it: Americans are sick of Iraq, they want out, they see Democrats in Congress actually doing something very strong-willed to get us out (and extending a bipartisan hand to get Republicans on board as well) -- and then Bush spits in their face. That's not going to go over very well back in Peoria, and the pressure on Bush to get the troops out will become enormous.

Option (5) -- troop readiness -- is probably going to be an interim measure to pressure the GOP. But in and of itself, it won't stop the war, so if it passes it will be a part of the argument, but not the spotlight. Some other bill will be needed to end the war quicker.

Option (6) -- cutting off all money -- isn't going to happen, but (6a) (funding only a Pentagon plan to withdraw) or (6b) (giving Bush only enough money to pull out) are both strong contenders. The biggest power Congress has to influence the executive branch is the power of the purse. The main bills coming up (either the annual Pentagon budget or another emergency appropriations bill) are already all about money. The best choice would be (6a), because (6b) puts entirely too much trust in Bush. But it remains to be seen whether either of these will attract enough Republican votes. (6a) will hopefully be more palatable to Republicans than anything else on this list, since it respects the Pentagon and gives the troops in the field the time to safely withdraw. Republicans could vote for it and tell their constituents back home that they voted "against Bush," but "for the troops." Which, according to the polls, are what Republican voters actually want to hear at this point.

 

So. That covers what the Democrats will do, but not how they will do it. They will have some strategic decisions to make before they begin the process. One big decision will be whether to attempt bill after bill after bill, hammering the Republicans with Iraq war votes again and again; or whether to put all the eggs in one basket and introduce one massive bill that covers everything, and then fight hard for that. The Democrats could try to whittle the Republicans down, or go whole hog and tell them "this is it -- vote for this bill or nothing."

Either way could work, if handled right. It's really up to Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to decide which way they want to play it. They may decide this by talking behind the scenes to the Republicans to see which would be more palatable to them. But the opportunity for successfully ending the war could happen either way, in my opinion.

The other big strategic question for the Democrats is whether to debate Iraq during the annual Pentagon budget, or by another emergency appropriations bill. Up until this year, President Bush has funded the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq "off budget" -- by using emergency appropriations bills over and over again, instead of planning for the wars in the normal yearly budgeting process. In a reversal (due to the Democrats taking over Congress), he has announced that this year the two wars will be funded from the Pentagon's annual budget. This is rather like a renter deciding that a yearly lease now makes more sense than a month-to-month arrangement, especially if problems with the landlord are a possibility.

Bush is hoping to thus paint the Democrats into a corner, but it's not one that's terribly hard to escape from. If they pass a budget for a full year on Iraq, it means that Bush will have whatever money is in there to spend for a full year (until next year's budgeting process, right in the heat of the election). The yearly budgets are supposed to be passed before the fiscal year starts on October 1st, and since Petraeus' report is in mid-September, that doesn't leave a lot of time to get it done right.

But Speaker Nancy Pelosi is reportedly considering refusing Bush's request, by keeping Iraq out of the Pentagon's yearly budget, and waiting until after Petraeus' report to debate it as another emergency appropriation. This may seem counter-intuitive (or maybe even ironic), but it could work. It would give the legislative process more time, and they could pass a budget for a shorter amount of time than a full year, keeping Bush on a shorter financial leash. As I mentioned before, if they came up against any funding deadlines but weren't done with debate, they could pass an extremely short continuing budget -- say a few weeks or even a month -- so they aren't attacked with: "You're not funding the troops in the field."

 

Conclusion

Shocking as it may sound, if any of these parliamentary schemes works and actually starts troops heading home, Democrats may ultimately pay a big (and largely unforeseen) political price. Sure, the public is overwhelmingly for getting the troops out of Iraq now, but the public is notoriously fickle. Remember, just as many of them were for the war when it first began, as are now against the war. By next year, if almost all our troops were out (less than 20,000 still there, to pick an arbitrary number) and the situation in Iraq is even more completely out of control than it is today, and (this is the absolutely crucial part of the equation, which is in no way guaranteed) American televised news was still covering the Iraqi situation; then Democrats could actually be painted as the "party that lost Iraq" in the 2008 elections, and the Republicans might even successfully get away with doing so.

But you know what? I don't care. I really don't.

Seriously, I'm a Democratic-leaning political junkie and I watch Washington, D.C. like a hawk with a pair of good binoculars. But my main goal is to achieve an end to the war in Iraq. Even if it means losing the White House and Congress to the Republicans next year. Because ending the war is more important than who wins and who loses in the next election. Even more important for this fall's congressional debate -- ending the war is more important than scoring political points off the other guys. If the public fully accepts and supports the consequences of the pullout, then there will be plenty of time later (during the campaign) to score political shots against vulnerable Republicans.

With Bush so intransigent, to effectively force him to end the war is going to take some bipartisanship. But when the Democrats have around 70% of the American public solidly behind their position to begin with, they are truly bargaining from a position of strength. Many Republicans know this already, and are sending signals that they're going to be willing to deal this September. So let them into the bargaining room, and hear them out.

Because make no mistake -- this isn't going to be like it was in the spring. Democrats are going to win this one. So allow the Republicans to tinker around the edges, and change a word here or there, or even add some patriotic sentences to assuage fragile and vaporous Republican sensibilities.

But hold firm on getting the soldiers out. Do not back down on the main issues. Hard deadlines, hard dates, hard troop drawdown numbers, hard funding cutoffs -- don't let the Republicans even have a say on any of that. Allow them to politely save some face with their constituents, in other words, but hold absolutely firm on how the war's going to end.

My guess is that even if Iraq falls apart (even more so than it already has), as long as our troops aren't being regularly and constantly killed in the carnage, the voters are not going to care very much during the election. My guess is that any Republican who votes against ending the war is going to pay a political price for it during the campaign, and not the other way around.

But, as I said, whatever the political price eventually is should not matter. Because some leadership is needed here. And that's what leadership is -- doing the right thing, while convincing enough of your opponents that it is the right thing... and then absolutely refusing to back down.

This war needs to end. If the Democrats don't do it in September, then they will be no better than the Republicans who led us into this war, and have enabled Bush ever since. Poll numbers show this, and Democrats know it. Enough Republicans need to be enticed or scared into crossing the aisle, in order to force Bush to get the troops out. Once again, here is what it will take: 60 to 70 in the House; 17 or 18 in the Senate. Once those numbers are reached, Bush's opinion ceases to be relevant.

Because at that point, the war's end will have truly begun.

 

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