President Bush is holding our troops hostage and threatening them with death. Here is what he is saying to Congress:
"Order me out of Iraq, and I will abandon the troops in the field. The blood of your children will be on your hands, not mine."
Every coffin that comes home shows he means business.
This is the ugly truth Congress wrestles with but will not name. Congress has been terrorized, like any family whose children are kidnapped and held hostage.
Vote to stop funding? Vote for an immediate start to withdrawal? American soldiers will die. As they have been dying. Bush knows he can blame Congress and the public's lack of "will" for the continued horror.
"They would not have died," he would say, "had the politicians in Washington not interfered with our commanders in the field."
This is Bush's threat. And everyone knows it, but few will talk about it. It is not easy to speak these truths about an American leader. But no other conclusion is possible.
Bush has so far, however, successfully framed the issue differently. Congress should not "cut and run." He's in charge. As the sad-voiced man in Ari Fleischer's cynical and misleading "Freedom Watch" pro-occupation campaign ad puts it, "It's no time to quit. It's no time for politics."
If there has ever been a time for politics, this is it. Because behind Bush's bluster is a bloody threat, a presidential threat of a sort this nation has never seen.
Congress, of course, could simply do nothing and bring the stand-off to a head. Without new authorization and new funding, Bush might be forced to chart a new course or (again) defy the Constitution. There is plenty of money to effect a safe withdrawal. But Bush is unlikely to either order a safe withdrawal or admit defiance of the Constitution. He will simply let the blood flow. How many will die, like so many terror hostages of the past, before Congress approves more ransom money?
How much blood would head off threats of impeachment?
Congress does not enforce the Constitutional requirement that foreign military initiatives require affirmative Congressional approval every two years because they know they will be blamed for every American death in Iraq from that day forward. And they know in their hearts that Bush will do nothing to prevent those deaths. This is the president who refused to adequately train and supply the troops, who abandoned the injured upon their return to America.
Does anyone expect that this president would actually order a safe and effective withdrawal plan? That he would execute such a plan if he were ordered to do so? No, Bush would not do that.
Congress's mistake was in framing the issue as if they believed he would ever accept their orders could they muster the votes to issue the orders. But Bush won't obey those orders, and they know it, and so they are arguing with themselves and with us about whether or not to pay the ransom.
We have come to the horrible circumstance of an American president holding his own troops hostage in a foreign land.
This is a heartbreakingly true framing of Bush's strategy for continuing his occupation of Iraq.
So what should be done?
As a first step, Congress must reassert its constitutional authority and restore the balance of power with a White House so drunk on power that it has brought our very democracy to the brink.
Congress could do this by immediately passing a resolution that forbids military engagement with Iran without additional prior approval of Congress. Yes, I said Iran. The Iraq War resolution of 2002 cannot, under any circumstance, be used to justify Bush's military intervention in Iran. The balance of power will not be restored by this simple, critical act. But at least some weight will be added to Congress' side of the scale. And, of course, another act of impetuous nation-invading might be stopped.
At the same time, Congress and all of us must call Bush out on his hostage-taking. We must name it for what it is and frame it truthfully. The tragedy of the Iraq occupation continues because the president holds our troops hostage on foreign ground. The deaths are ours to mourn, but Bush's to answer for.
It will be much harder for Bush to follow through on his bloody blackmail if all of America is talking about what he's doing.