Monday, February 19, 2007

The Alternative

Suzanne Nossel discusses what the Democrats can do about Iraq:
Congressional Democrats are enmeshed in a dilemma that became inevitable once they took over both chambers of Congress last November. At the time, I made the point that Congressional authority over foreign policy is limited, and that by losing sight of this Democrats would risk assuming the blame for a disaster in Iraq that was not of their own making.

The House has passed a non-binding resolution denouncing the surge. In the Senate, Democrats fell just short of the 60 votes needed to bring that resolution to the floor. The maneuvering won't stop there. President Bush has shown no appetite for heeding the will of a weary and frustrated public that mostly wants out of Iraq. Anti-war voters are understandably insistent that Congress go beyond hortatory measures and stop Bush from continuing to escalate.

Democrats face a genuinely tough challenge: On the one hand, they won control of the Congress with a mandate to halt Bush's folly in Iraq and non-binding resolutions are, by definition, half-measures. On the flip side, though, Democrats cannot afford to be accused of withholding support for the troops. Moreover, restricting funds won't, in itself, put the war on a wiser course. And it may give Bush the ability to argue that future failure in Iraq ought to be blamed on Congress not him.

I have great respect for Nossel and the point she's trying to make, but it's frustrating to me that, like House Democrats, she appears to have bought into the necessity of framing the Democrats plan on Iraq around the "support the troops" meme. Again, let me state that I'm not political naif. I understand that Democrats could easily overplay their hand on Iraq, with irresponsible rhetoric, or worse, an irresponsible plan to force an end to the war. But Democrats also face an historic opportunity to redefine the debate on the war, and they ought to be bolstered by numbers such as these:

An ABC News/Washington Post poll conducted earlier this month -- which found 70 percent of Americans disapproved of Bush's handling of the war -- found that a majority trust Democrats to best keep the country safe from terrorists. The same survey asked respondents to say whom they trusted to do a better job handling the situation in Iraq. Sixty percent said Democrats, and 33 percent said Bush.

"The problem we've got is at the very core level, Americans are beginning to doubt that Republicans know what they are doing in foreign policy,'' said GOP strategist Mike Collins.

These are the same Republicans whose last refuge is to accuse Democrats of not supporting the troops when those Democrats talk about de-funding the war. I am not at all sure that progressives who support a "slow" plan for Iraq understand how incredibly stupid this smear is. If the war is de-funded, the troops will be brought home. They will not be left out in Baghdad to fight with no armor or no bullets. The American people are not stupid, and they will understand the difference. The only people who will believe that a plan to de-fund the war is not supportive of the troops are the ones will almost certainly be opposed to the Democrats no matter what plan they come up with.

And Nossel herself points out problems with the plan that is apparently be put forth by John Murtha:
According to this account, into this mix comes a crafty proposal by John Murtha. Rather than holding back funds wholesale for the surge, he wants to attach requirements for high levels of readiness among additional troops to be deployed in Iraq, standards he believes the Administration cannot meet. This will de facto slow the surge, while allowing Democrats to be on the side of protecting the troops from unfavorable battlefield conditions.

While this is clever, both political and policy considerations ought to temper enthusiasm. First of all, the Politico website has already dubbed Murtha's proposal a "slow bleed" for the Iraq mission. As long as the President refuses to moderate his ambitions, forcing him to pursue them on a strict diet of troops and resources may only starve existing troops in the field of much needed support and rest. Leaving 130,000 troops exposed in Iraq as political support drains away in Washington is not an appealing prospect. At the same time, though, the fact that the President will ignore repeated messages from the Congress and the public is anything but a reason to shut up.

I probably shouldn't be, but I'm put off by the use of the word "clever" (though perhaps she isn't the word approvingly.) As Nossel herself points out, the plan may be too clever by half, in that it will make the Iraq war harder for the President to prosecute, and yet at the same time will not require that the troops presently in Iraq be brought home. Such a plan is a long way from ending the war in Iraq, which Nossel herself points out was the reason many Americans voted Democratic in November. Nossel concludes her post by pointing out that merely being opposed to the war in Iraq is not a good enough position for the Democrats to take, and she's right. There must be an alternative. But that alternative must be linked by threats or an actual effort to de-fund the present operations of our forces in Iraq. To do otherwise will not bring an end to this war anytime soon, and it will waste the trust of a public that is asking Democrats to do just that.

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