Monday, February 19, 2007

De-Funding the War

I am a classic liberal. By which I mean, I am forced to consider problems from every angle, and frequently take a nuanced position that can be difficult to explain to those on opposite ends of an issue. I find myself in this same bind when it comes to debate over de-funding the war in Iraq, and as a result, I feel it's important to address the issue again and try to state my position more clearly. But I'll do so by reaching back to this Jan 31st column at The Huffington Post by Chris Weigant. Here's a lengthy excerpt worth reading carefully:
...while Bush will get to order the soldiers in for his escalation (some are already on their way), his bank's about to run dry. Because the war isn't on the normal budget and the money from the last "supplemental" budget for Iraq is going to be gone at some point this spring, or possibly early summer. To continue the war, Bush is going to ask Congress next month for over $100 billion more for Iraq.

This is where the feathers are really going to fly. The anti-war groups on the left are going to loudly demand a cutoff of all funds, immediately. Senator Feingold is already proposing this, and will emerge as the strongest anti-war voice in the Senate, with many (including me) disappointed that he decided not to run for President. Barack Obama is backing a plan that sets a hard deadline, one year out, to get all the troops home. Hillary Clinton is proposing a troop cap of 130,000 troops (this will be too late to stop the surge, it should be noted, but she may change her mind by next month). John McCain's milestones will probably be appealing to many at this point, as a way to rein Bush in. Look for other presidential candidates to come up with competing plans, from both the left and the right.

What comes out of this fray is probably going to be an appropriation that ties Bush's hands in some way or another. Either it won't be for as much money as he wants (forcing him to come back again and again for more money, until next year's budget comes up for discussion), or it will come with so many strings attached he won't be able to use it for anything he wants, but instead will be held accountable for the way it is spent. The smartest thing Congress could do at this point is to force Bush to come up with an exit strategy at the end of a certain period, or else the money stops...But it remains to be seen whether this will have the votes or not.

But Congress is just not going to cut off all funding at this point. Democrats will be so terrified of the "you aren't supporting the troops in the field" mantra from the right, that they will vote more money for Iraq. One way or another, Bush will get some more money, albeit with lots of strings attached. He will then have the option to veto this, but if he does so then he would be open to charges of "not supporting the troops in the field."

More Iraq war money approved will send the anti-war folks into apoplexy, it should be noted. This is good, as they will need to keep the pressure up on the issue all spring and summer long. Marches, rallies, petitions, TV appearances, anything they can muster. Keep Congress' feet to the fire! Show the growing public support for withdrawal in every way you can.

If you look below you'll see an update to Adam's post below on the Senate vote on the resolution condemning the present strategy in Iraq, wherein he links to a Reuters article detailing how the Senate will now take up an effort to revise the 2002 Authorization for the use of Military Force that gave President Bush the authority to go to war. As Weigant explains near the beginning of the piece I link to above, this approach will fail. Unfortunately the AUMF is a joint resolution with the force of law, and any effort to revise it would have to survive not only a Senate filibuster, but also a certain veto by the President. To paraphrase Weigant, it is much harder for Congress to end a war than it is to declare it. Not that it's not worth the effort; symbolically every expression of disapproval of the course of the war in Iraq undermines the President, and makes it difficult for him to argue his case to the American people that we need to continue fighting in Iraq. But attempting to revise the AUMF will not end the war.

So we come to the effort to de-fund the war. The gist of Weigant's column is that Congress will find this difficult to do in the short-term. He also mentions the Democratic fear of not supporting the troops (though matter-of-factly, neither approving nor disapproving of such an attitude), but he also cites some other practical problems with trying to immediately de-fund the war. However, he also supports an effort to end funding for the war beyond a certain point in time. It is very important to note that the budget process is carried about a concurrent resolution not requiring the President's signature, and that it is filibuster-proof.

It is under this authority that Murtha is proposing a plan to attach so many strings to appropriations for the Iraq war that President Bush will be backed into a corner as to how these troops may be used. Perhaps it is also intended to force an eventual withdrawal, but that's unclear because no Democrat has stated as such. In other words, talk of de-funding is apparently be avoided deliberately at this point, to avoid charges of not supporting the trooops, and also probably in large part because Democrats don't want to provoke a fight about something that it's not in their power to do yet.

That being said, let me state again, I am not arguing that the Democrats should rush headlong into a political disaster by immediately attempting to end the war, with no alternative plan. It is very very important that the Democrats have coalesced around some alternative strategy in Iraq before they begin any serious efforts to force a draw-down in forces. Now I'm quite aware that Congress does not have the authority to implement the war strategy. Nor should they. Rather, the alternative plan will be useful politically, to allow Democrats to avoid what would be rightful charges that they have no plan for what to do in Iraq beyond opposing whatever President Bush wants.

However, I still have no patience with a political strategy that is motivated by efforts to avoid absurd and unbelievable smears (and I stand with Big Tent Democrat on this one.) Strings tied to appropriations for the war should only be the beginning of the political struggle to end the war. As I stated below, threats or concrete efforts to reduce funding in ways that force troops to be brought home, should be the inevitable next step (after all I hardly think anyone believes that appropriations riders are going to force President Bush to reconsider his strategy in Iraq.) There should be no fear of being attacked as not supporting the troops, because the vast majority of Americans want the war brought to an end, and are not going to suddenly change their minds because John Boehner starts crying on the House floor, or Ann Coulter goes on Fox News to accuse Democrats of being traitors.

That being said, it is important to realize also that the war in Iraq must be attacked from every single angle available to Congress. We must push the Senate to pass their resolution disapproving of the war, push Congress to tie strings to the money for the war, push Congress for an alternative strategy in Iraq, and push Congress to state firmly that they intend to de-fund the war at a certain point. Congress must be assertive-aggressive even-in standing up to President Bush on the war, and for once let the lawyers in the Bush administration cry out that Congress is attempting an unconstitutional usurpation of the President's authority, and not the other way around. The American people will support this bold action, because they elected and trust the Democratic party to put an end to this war. But only bold action will mobilize them.

Now is not the time for half-measures that are not geared towards ending the war, or for being afraid of accusations from cowards on the right that won't stick anyway. The war can be ended, but only if the Democrats seize the initiative and abandon the fear of being painted in a corner on the issue of national security and the war in Iraq.

UPDATE: E.J. Dionne surveys the various anti-war strategies and says there is another approach that should be adopted as well:
The Murtha measure would at least force a much-needed debate on the damage this war has done to our armed forces and the extraordinary burdens being borne by the brave minority of Americans who serve. It would also sidestep the political damage of doing anything that could be construed by Bush's supporters as "failing to support our troops."

But the sense that the proposal has been crafted in part for reasons of political convenience and the intricate restrictions it would place on the military are precisely what could doom it. The war's opponents need other options.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) has an additional idea: Opponents of the war need to force full consideration of the original Baker-Hamilton proposals that, he said, promised to put American policy "on a trajectory to have our combat troops out of Iraq this time next year" and reflected "the center of gravity in Congress." Whatever its flaws, the Iraq Study Group report could still serve as a focal point for sharply reducing America's military role in Iraq before the 2008

"The refusal of the administration to try to work with others to resolve this in a responsible manner has created a very polarized atmosphere," Van Hollen said. "They've refused to listen to anyone else."

That should be the central theme of the president's critics because it's true -- and because it offers the best rallying cry for those seeking to change a disastrous policy.
It would also give Democrats the ability to say that they have something in mind other than simply short-circuiting President Bush's plans on the war. I still believe a "hunker down" strategy is the way to go, but at this point Democrats must be focused on a plan that will reduce the number of soldiers in Iraq period.

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