Thursday, February 22, 2007

Congress' next steps on Iraq

In preparation for the next confrontation over Iraq, Congressional Democrats are honing two different proposals that would start scaling back our activities there.

In the House, the plan is to require the military to meet established readiness and training standards that would essentially make a continued large-scale presence in Iraq impossible.

The Senate proposal is more direct, specifically restricting the allowable actions of U.S. troops in Iraq, limiting them to work related to a withdrawal of U.S. forces: direct attacks on Al-Qaeda, training Iraqi units and the like.

Of the two, the Senate has the better plan. The House approach is clever, as it neatly points up the unsustainability of our current troops levels. But it's a somewhat cowardly, back-door way to force a troop withdrawal, and seems to hold plenty of potential for unintended consequences by not forthrightly calling for -- and providing the resources for -- such a withdrawal.

The Senate approach, by contrast, simply commands an orderly end to our mission there. It's simple, direct and clear.

The chance of either plan actually taking effect is minimal. Democrats must overcome Republican opposition in Congress -- including a 60-vote margin in the Senate -- in order to pass them, and then they would face an almost certain veto from President Bush -- even if they are attached to some other piece of "must pass" legislation.

There's another risk for Democrats as well: loss of the Senate. Joe Lieberman is quietly suggesting that he might switch parties if they start pushing an Iraq policy he doesn't like. A lot of that might just be Joe posturing, taking advantage of his swing position to maximize his influence on both sides of the aisle. But he's enough of a true believer in the war that he could be serious. You can be sure any Democratic moves in the Senate will be weighed against the Joe Factor first.

Political machinations aside, are the Democrats doing the right thing by tying the President's hands?

In a general sense, there's nothing wrong with it. Congress has the sole power to declare war, the sole power to fund it and the sole power to truly end it. The President, as commander-in-chief, prosecutes the wars that Congress declares. There has been much blurring of that line over the centuries, but the thing to remember is that Congress, not the President, ultimately decides when and how long to fight. If the people (through Congress) decide they don't want to fight anymore, we should stop fighting.

But is it the right thing to do in Iraq?

Again, in a general sense, yes. The Iraq war was a mistake from the get-go, and incompetently managed besides. It has increased polarization, radicalization and terrorism in the Mideast and worldwide. It has cost a staggering amount of money, political capital, global influence and blood. It has tied up resources better used elsewhere, and divided the American electorate at a time when we needed unity to ensure continued support for the long struggle with terror. Correcting such a blunder is a good thing, and necessary.

"But that means the terrorists win!" I hear war supporters say. Nonsense. Iraq is one battle in a much larger war, and a smart general knows when to cut his losses. Leaving Iraq does not mean abandoning the fight against terror; it means redeploying our resources to more effective fronts, while removing our inflammatory presence from Iraqi soil.

Had war-supporter logic prevailed in World War I, they would have insisted we keep pouring troops into the Dardanelles campaign, lest we "let the Turks win" and show we can be beaten. In reality, of course, the Allies recognized the campaign as a disaster and pulled the plug -- and went on to win the war anyway.

So in a general sense, Congress needs to be prepared to bring our involvement in Iraq to an end. But in specific, their timing is a little premature. Bush's "surge" is just getting under way. He deserves a chance to show it can work, because all things being equal winning in Iraq is preferable to not winning. After all, the logic for withdrawal is not that we don't want to win; it's that winning in any sense meaningful to our national security appears unlikely and reinforcing failure is stupid.

So prepare the bills. But stay the hand until we see the results of the surge. And if it fails (as, alas, it probably will), then report out the Senate version. If we're going to pull the plug, do it responsibly, directly and openly.

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