Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Congress finds its spine


Finally.

Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee began laying the constitutional groundwork today for an effort to block President Bush’s plan to send more troops to Iraq and place new limits on the conduct of the war there, perhaps forcing a withdrawal of American forces from Iraq.

They were joined by Senator Arlen Specter, the Pennsylvania Republican who led the panel for the last two years, in asserting that Mr. Bush cannot simply ignore Congressional opposition to his plan to send 21,500 additional troops to Iraq.

"I would respectfully suggest to the president that he is not the sole decider," Mr. Specter said. "The decider is a joint and shared responsibility."

Mr. Specter said he considered a clash over constitutional powers to be "imminent."

I don't particularly agree with Russell Feingold, who is calling for American troops to be withdrawn within six months. There may come a time for such a curtain drop, but it isn't now: Bush should be given one last chance to try to pull this out, to show that his "surge" will work. I'm skeptical, but I'll be happy to be proven wrong.

But I fully support Congress starting to exert its Constitutional authority and responsibilities. If they don't lose their nerve, we may end up with a historic delineation of the relative wartime powers of the executive and legislative branch.

First, let's quickly dispose of a tangential political canard.

Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch repeatedly talked about the need to "support our troops," suggesting that a resolution opposing Bush's strategy would undermine them. He was handily cut apart by Feingold, who noted that the troops would not be hurt in any way. They would still be paid, supplied and trained as usual -- just not in Iraq. Richard Durbin delivered a second blow, noting that troops are being sent to Iraq without proper training or equipment. "Now who is standing behind the troops?" he said. Specter, citing a Military Times poll, added that since only 35 percent of service members support Bush's plan, questioning that plan would seem to be doing what the troops want.

Those responses neatly demolish the idea that "supporting the troops" requires supporting the president's use of them. That was a central tactic in war supporters' attempts to stifle debate on Iraq, and both the attempt and the faulty logic behind it always angered me. Sad as it is to see the tactic still being used on the floor of the Senate, it's good to see it quickly and robustly refuted.

But back to the constitutional debate. Congress's authority to cut off funding is undisputed. That's how Congress -- not the executive branch -- finally ended American involvement in the Vietnam War. And Congress has the sole authority to declare war as well. That bookends the debate: Congress can start and end wars. But what power does it have over the conduct of a war?

As a practical matter, it's usually better to have one commanding general than 536 of them. So let's stipulate that as long as the president and Congress agree on a course, the president should generally be left alone to command the troops.

But if push comes to shove, who wins?

It seems to me that if Congress has the power to start and end wars, it must also have the power to take lesser steps, such as establishing limits on a particular war or attaching strings to military funding. Congress' impeachment power supports this idea: If Congress really wanted to, it could impeach the president and then keep on impeaching his successors until they found one willing to fight the war to their liking.

The Founders, remember, had just gotten rid of one executive tyrant; they did not wish to empower another. Most important governmental powers rest in Congress, and the real biggies -- the power to tax and impeach, for example -- belong exclusively to the House, the people's representatives.

The president's commander-in-chief powers, then, are subservient to Congress: he fights the war on their behalf. At the Senate hearing, that was the testimony of Louis Fisher, a constitutional law specialist for the Library of Congress. As he put it, "The same duty commanders have to the president, the president has to the elected representatives."

But as another witness -- Robert Turner, a professor at the University of Virginia -- noted, such power comes with a price: blame. He said Congress was responsible for the Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia because they wouldn't let Nixon fight inside Cambodia. That's a stretch, but it also demonstrates why Congress has generally been only too happy to let the president make such decisions in all but the most extreme cases.

Besides moving toward a confrontation on Iraq, Congress also issued another pre-emptive warning on Iran.

"What I think many of us are concerned about is that we stumble into active hostilities with Iran without having aggressively pursued diplomatic approaches, without the American people understanding exactly what's taking place," Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., told John Negroponte, who is in line to become the nation's No. 2 diplomat as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's deputy.

And for today's political humor, here's Negroponte's response to a question from Chuck Hagel.

Negroponte repeated President Bush's oft-stated preference for diplomacy, although he later added, "We don't rule out other possibilities."

"Preference for diplomacy"? Surely he jests. Bush, after all, has flatly rejected talks with Syria or Iran over Iraq. And he has let the Europeans take the lead on talks over Iran's nuclear program, contenting himself with rattling sabers in the background.

Some of that is reasonable, even justified. I'm doubtful diplomacy will succeed in persuading Iran to abandon its nuclear ambitions. But to claim Bush has a preference for diplomacy is a bit removed from reality.

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1 Comments:

Blogger Maxtrue said...

I expect any good news from Iraq will be treated skeptically, or ignored altogether. It may keep the Republicans together. As long as media focuses on THEIR slant, the polls won't change. Media is however, sensitive to the Blogosphere and internet claims of slanted reporting might push them to consider success is possible. Bush is the underdog at this point. And so are the Bears. Iran might drown everything out if that escalates too soon. It is hard to tell.

Privately, I can't believe all Democrats will refuse to except better news from Iraq. Schumer and Hillary might eventually see success as vindication for their former tough stands. I wish I could ask Webb that question, or Biden. Media is already downplaying Shia on Shia violence and focusing on questionable Iraqi army performance instead. A press suspicious that accusations are a ploy to misdirect treats news of Iranian IED skeptically. I know Bobby can shed some light on what is actually taking place.

I think years of being stomped by the Republican media control are justifying Democrat's rather slanted spin. They can be commended for finally pushing the Great Decider to change course, but rather than taking credit and co-opting the fight in Iraq, they prefer to use it for political advantage just like Republicans used the terror issue to claim Kerry would get us nuked. It cuts both ways and I have little sympathy for Bush and company. I don't want them to fail now however. The stakes go way beyond partisanship. See “Fiasco”.

The short answer: Democrats don't want to find out, but Bush will get his last chance. If they cut off funds, they will screw themselves.

My hope is that the DoD knows the consequence of retreat and more failure. It has more power to prevent Iran or Syria from escalating a situation our forces cannot control. Another 93,000 troops should cover Afghanistan, Africa and the Gulf. It will take time.

I doubt we can take out the Iranian nuclear facilities without some expeditionary force (if we know where to look) World opinion will turn against us if next week the oil stops flowing from the Gulf. Eventually we should play their bluff with an olive branch at the end of a barrel (well a barrel for a barrel is fair)

It is ironic, that how this plays out depends greatly on the Republicans sticking together. Republicans hawks are shrinking. I also have a feeling that Hizb'Allah acting on Iran's behalf might upset Syria and pave the way for us to break their alliance with Iran. A major effort to stabilize Gaza should precede any action with Iran. Our warships should further infuriate the Iranians against their President. The fact the Democrats won’t rally behind sanctions is damning. And how they fought for sanctions against Saddam rather than military force.

Those are my amateur musings based on knowing 10%.....

1/31/2007 9:41 PM  

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