05/23/2007 06:11 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Congress Should Play Rope-A-Dope and Avoid the Sucker Punch: Delay Vote on Iraq Defense Funds

"The idea that legislators should get out ahead of public opinion, that they should try to shape that opinion (as did former Arkansas Democratic Sen. William Fulbright on the Vietnam War), sometimes risking their political careers for doing so, is essentially passé in American politics." (Elizabeth Drew, "The War in Washington," New York Review of Books, May 10, 2007)

Two stories on The New York Times website leap out at me. One is the same story running in The Washington Post of May 23 ("Democrats Relent On Pullout Timetable"), and just about every other news outlet in the country. In the Times story--"Democrats Pull Troop Deadline From Iraq Bill"--Carl Hulse writes from Washington:

"Congressional Democrats relented Tuesday on their insistence that a war spending measure set a date for withdrawing American combat troops from Iraq. Instead, they moved toward a deal with President Bush that would impose new conditions on the Iraqi government. The decision to back down was a wrenching reversal for leading Democrats, who saw their election triumph in November as a call to force an end to the war. It was the first time since taking power in Congress that the Democrats had publicly agreed to allow a vote on war financing without a timetable for troop withdrawal."

The other front-page story, "As Comrades Search, Fatal Bomb Wreaks Havoc," filed by Damien Cave from south of Baghdad, is accompanied by photos of maimed soldiers. He writes: "The ground exploded under an ashen sky at dawn. Dust, dirt, blood and military equipment filled the air, clearing after several seconds to reveal a frenzied scene of horror."

"Where Sgt. Justin D. Wisniewski, 22, had just been standing there was now a crater five feet wide and three feet deep. His body lay nearby. The wounded were scattered around him. *** One of the wounded ... knelt off to the right. ...His hands rested on his knees, his head tilted down. Eyes closed, he said he couldn't see. *** Blood had splattered his face, which was bruised but intact. 'I have a question,' he said, pointing to the left side of his head. 'Is my ear still there?' " The report continues: Sergeant Wisniewski, 22, died at the start of a 10-mile trek through farms and over canals with the goal of finding the three missing Americans in the "triangle of death."

The soldiers were of the Second Platoon, A Battery, Task Force 2-15, Second Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division.


It is an inescapable conclusion that for the Democratic-controlled Congress to continue to fund the war--and the supplemental defense monies will in fact fuel "the surge" strategy well beyond Gen. Petraeus' progress report in September--is to underwrite the continued participation of the 10th Mountain Division in a predominantly civil war between various factions in Iraq. Moreover, whether or not the surge is effective by some measure, as Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI) has argued, U.S. forces will still be stuck with trying to police a sectarian conflict; more soldiers will be killed and maimed; and American military readiness whittled away.

Democrats in Congress would like to bring an end to America's role in the war without being held primarily accountable for how it ends. They want President Bush, under the pottery barn rule, to be stuck with owning the war because his administration has made a tragic mess of it. However, he clearly wants to pass the baton to the next administration, on the backs of the men in the field, and preserve a tattered legacy. Democratic Senators and Representatives will share ownership when they fund putting men in harm's way and keeping the war machine going into 2008. What constitutes a meaningful anti-war stance, without any time deadlines for withdrawal of the troops who have been occupying Iraq for over four years?

The leaders of Congress are bound to understand the long-term implications of passing yet another $100 billion dollar "emergency" supplemental add-on to the annual defense budget. There are no secrets here. That is why many Democrats, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Russ Feingold, have indicated that they will not support the approval of the supplemental, which in turn will mean that a significant number of Republicans are needed for the White House to get it passed.

Pelosi has made it clear that if money for the war is going to be provided without a timeline for withdrawal, it will be without her personal support. Remember, it was she who laid down the marker that "there's a new Congress in town. This war without end has gone on far too long, and we are here to end it." It was she who warned her colleagues: Did they want a headline saying, "Congress is standing up to President Bush," or "Congress gives President Bush free rein"?


Incidentally, has Jack Murtha (D-PA) examined WHY the funding level in the supplemental bill is as high as it is? It is supposed to cover the period until September 30, the end of the fiscal year. Even if the idea of no limitations on America's involvement in the war before September 30 is accepted, why is $100 billion necessary for this purpose--a rate of war spending much greater than that of last year? A plausible explanation is that the supplemental is intended to carry the war well beyond the start of the fiscal year. Or another escalation in troop deployments is planned? Yet, Congress intends to revisit the issue in September, with a plan to impose a 2008 withdrawal date for combat troops?

In backing down this week, Democratic leaders and the rank-and-file seem to be most worried that their opposition to the White House strategy will be portrayed as neglect of the troops. But once the purse strings are let go, for several months, of what consequence is it to pledge to renew the fight later this summer by attaching timetable "riders" to less important legislation?

In the words of Sen. Feingold: "There has been a lot of tough talk from members of Congress about wanting to end this war, but it looks like the desire for political comfort won out over real action. Congress should have stood strong, acknowledged the will of the American people, and insisted on a bill requiring a real change of course in Iraq."

Of what real use in checking White House conduct of the war are 18 political and legislative benchmarks (labeled as "extremely weak" by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid) for the Iraqi government, with periodic reporting requirements beginning this summer when Congress will be about to leave town? Regardless, the Bush administration is proceeding with national security plans for actions in Iraq that stretch well beyond 2008. Note the second big Washington Post story of May 23: "New Strategy for War Stresses Iraqi Politics."


President Bush, with the acquiescence of key Senators and Representatives, has been playing a "phony war" over funding the troops. The only Congressional thrust left, with shifting public opinion and continuing bad news on the ground in Iraq, is to write legislation that mandates--as Sen. Feingold has proposed--a cutoff of funds by approximately a year from now. But the voting "arithmetic" of the House and the Senate is not going to change enough before November 2008 to make possible overriding a presidential veto.

The Democrats have let their optimum moment pass for refusing outright to pass any defense appropriations bill that does not contain hard withdrawal dates. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer has lectured: "We can't pass something without the President's signature, and the President can't pass something without our agreement. So we can be at a standoff, and go back and forth with one another, or we can come to an agreement." This sounds too much like "What is the Constitution Between Friends?"

Congress should stay in session through Memorial weekend. At some point, the White House cannot (constitutionally) fund the war without new money voted by Congress. The only way to support our troops and end the war is by direct action in which Democratic leaders go to the mat with "the decider" in the Oval Office.