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The War in Washington

On no other issue has the Democratic takeover of Congress in January—presenting President Bush with an opposition Congress for the first time in his presidency—been more dramatic than on the Iraq war. Under the Republicans, Congress undoubtedly would not have taken the steps it has toward forcing a drawdown of US forces from Iraq—which a majority of members in both parties favor, no matter what they say publicly. Though both the House and the Senate took important steps in late March toward pressing the President to wind down the war, politicians in both parties are struggling to catch up with both the public’s increasingly negative opinion of the war and the facts about what’s actually happening in Iraq.

The controversy over the war has led to more agonizing on the part of members of Congress than any other issue in memory. Now that the war has evolved into something far different from what Congress authorized in 2002, the issue of how to wind it down, and the human and financial costs of continuing it, present difficult political problems for each party. Those with safe seats need not worry for themselves, but all members of Congress face another battle for control of both houses, as well as the forthcoming presidential election; so they are concerned about the future of their parties as well as their own seats. The Republicans are just beginning to overcome their shell shock at losing their majority in 2006, and many are pessimistic about 2008.

Following the outcome of last year’s election, a clash between Bush and the Democratic Congress over the war—and over other issues as well—was inevitable. Members of Congress—in both parties—have also begun to act on their resentment at the White House for treating them throughout Bush’s presidency largely as a nuisance that can be ignored. The administration’s firing of eight US attorneys (in some instances apparently to affect the cases they were handling) and its misleading and inept handling of the issue served to further drain the remaining enthusiasm of already unhappy Republicans for supporting the President’s policies in general, and particularly for defending the administration’s blunders. That these events coincided with Congress’s consideration of the White House’s request for supplemental funding for the war was not helpful to the President.

While the Democratic-led Congress has been conducting oversight hearings—for the first time in Bush’s presidency—intended to scrutinize the executive branch and has also passed a number of bills, nothing has consumed it remotely as much as the war. Shortly after the November election, the Democratic leaders of the Senate and the House decided to push for a series of votes on the war in the next Congress. The idea was to respond to the electorate and also to put the Republicans on the defensive—especially the moderates—so that eventually enough of them would vote with the Democrats to get a majority to force a change in Bush’s Iraq policy. The complication for the Democrats is that they want to bring an end to the war in Iraq without being held responsible for how it ends. A key Democratic strategist told me, “We don’t want to own this war. It’s Bush’s war, and we want him to keep owning it.”

The public was understood to have turned against the war before the last election, but the polls also showed that the voters were unclear about how it should end. The congressional Democrats reflect that ambivalence. So far they have adopted the position that they aren’t trying to end the war but to “refocus the mission” so that American troops will be in less danger.

Moreover, opponents of the Iraq war have had to contend with the Bush administration’s propaganda efforts. By exploiting the term “war on terror,” the administration has been all too successful in creating a corrosive climate of fear throughout the country.1 Bush and his allies assert that those who vote to wind down the war in Iraq are trying to “micromanage” it, and are interfering with the President’s constitutional authority to conduct war—a charge that comports with neither precedent nor the Constitution itself.2 The Republican leaders make the self-contradictory argument that to vote to extricate US troops from the murderous crossfire among warring factions in Iraq amounts to a failure to “support the troops.” So Democrats insist that they are not proposing to cut any money for the troops. The current prevailing view among Democrats—a position based on politics as well as policy, and one shared by numerous serious critics of the war—is that the US cannot simply withdraw from Iraq immediately; nor can a complete drawdown of US forces take place for some time to come. Therefore, both chambers’ bills speak of “redeployment” of most of the combat troops, allowing some to remain to train Iraqi forces, protect the Americans remaining in Iraq, and conduct anti-terror missions against al-Qaeda forces, a small but deadly presence in Iraq. A Democratic senator told me, “We are dealing with the realities here as well as in Iraq.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid faced the daunting task of drafting resolutions on funding for the Iraq war that could gain the support of majorities of their party, which are splintered among those who seek a quick end to the war; those who are reluctant to impose conditions on the President’s conduct of the war; and those who want to find a way to devise an exit strategy to the war that could both be effective and win majority votes. The Democrats have been warned by their political consultants that the public, while opposed to the war, is not ready to support cutting off funds for it. The Republicans taunt the Democrats by saying if they really oppose the war they should simply deny the administration the funds for it, knowing that the great majority of Democrats are not willing to do so. (In fact, the Senate Republicans trapped the Democrats into voting against a cutoff, though the amendment was nonbinding and therefore has more symbolic than real effect.)

The idea that legislators should get out ahead of public opinion, that they should try to shape that opinion (as, say, did former Arkansas Democrat William Fulbright on the Vietnam War), sometimes risking their political careers by doing so, is essentially passé in American politics. Self-preservation, the need for money, and the advice of political consultants all discourage the taking of risks. The close margins in the House and the Senate work against the exercise of courage. In the Senate, the Democrats technically hold a 51–49 margin, but they lack the vote of the ailing Tim Johnson of South Dakota, and on the issue of the war they cannot expect to win the vote of Connecticut’s Joe Lieberman. And the votes of other centrist Democrats, such as Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Ben Nelson of Nebraska, cannot be counted on.

This means that the Democrats need the votes of at least two Republicans. The Senate version of the supplemental spending bill on Iraq was passed only because Republican Senators Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and Gordon Smith of Oregon voted for it. In the House, the Democrats have a majority of 233–202 and cannot count on the votes of more than a few Republicans, if that, and have to expect to lose several of their party from the left and the right on numerous bills: the House version of the Iraq spending bill passed by a 218–212 margin, with two Republicans supporting it and fourteen Democrats opposing.

Some eighty Democratic House members belong to the Out of Iraq caucus, which was created in June 2005 to push for a quick end to the war. The members of this group are loath to vote for any more funds for the war, and hold the power to doom any resolution that does so. Pelosi’s greatest difficulties in getting a resolution through the House came from these members.

Therefore, Pelosi and her allies, including the antiwar Pennsylvanian John Murtha, the centrist majority leader Steny Hoyer, and David Obey, chairman of the House Appropriations committee, as well as the liberal George Miller of California, who is said to be the last person Pelosi talks to before she makes a decision, had to devise a proposal that would win enough support from conservative and centrist Democrats as well as enough members of the Out of Iraq caucus. This required several contortions.

Republicans are in a bind of their own. In the Senate, some, such as Susan Collins of Maine, John Sununu of New Hampshire, Norm Coleman of Minnesota, and Gordon Smith, are up for reelection in states that lean strongly against the war. Still, despite the deep misgivings about the war on the part of numerous Republicans, almost all of them aren’t yet ready to break openly with the President. But the maneuvering earlier this year of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell to block debate on the war put the Senate Republicans in a bad light and a half-dozen of them went to McConnell to urge him to change his position, saying that the Republicans had to show a willingness to at least allow debate on the issue of the war. Most Republican members, however, at this point believe that opposing the President on the war risks incurring the wrath of the Republican base and fracturing the party.

In writing their bills for supplemental funding for the Iraq war, the Democrats in both chambers fell back on the recommendations of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, which Bush seemed to have brushed off when it was presented to him. Both Senate and House versions also adopted most of the “benchmarks” for the progress of Iraqi government that Bush and Iraqi President Nuri al-Maliki agreed on in early January, and which Bush spoke of in his January 10 speech announcing the surge. Those benchmarks, which the commission called milestones, include requirements that the Iraqi government take certain actions: send more of its own troops to Baghdad; cut back on political interference with the tactical decisions of Iraqi commanders; disarm the militias; assure the protection of minority rights in the parliament; share oil revenue among the regions; and allow former Baath Party members to serve in the government and army, undoing the postwar folly of occupation chief Jerry Bremer’s “de-Baathification.”

The requirement that the Iraqi government meet the benchmarks was inserted in both the Senate and House bills in order to attract centrist and conservative Democrats’ votes. Since Bush had earlier agreed to them, this gave members of Congress a nonpartisan hook on which to hang their votes for the resolution. The House leaders, seeking to win over the votes of both the liberal and conservative Democrats, made the end of August 2008 a mandatory date for completing a phased withdrawal, but also included an earlier withdrawal date of December 31 of this year unless the President certifies that the Iraqi government has made sufficient progress on the benchmarks by the end of July. (The Democrats do not doubt that he will do so.)

Both the Senate and the House bills thus laid out somewhat complicated schemes, but in essence they both say that whether or not things go well in Iraq, the US will pull out most combat troops sometime next year. (The Democrats are evasive about the number of combat troops that should remain.) The framers of the Senate bill, hoping to pick up the votes of centrists and moderates on both sides, made the March 31, 2008 date for withdrawal of most of the troops a “goal” rather than a firm date. The Senate bill also urged the administration to make greater diplomatic efforts involving Iran, Syria, and Saudi Arabia, as the Iraq Study Group had strongly urged.

The bills were intended to convey to those countries that it is in their interests to maintain stability in the region once Americans have been redeployed. The Democrats are also trying to discourage Iraq’s neighbors Iran and Syria from engaging in a proxy war in Iraq after the US substantially withdraws, fueling a large-scale holy war as a culmination of the centuries-old struggle between the Sunnis and the Shiites. Bush’s actions have set the stage for such a war. Saudi Arabia could also be expected to interfere by using its ample financial resources and backing clandestine activities. It is assured that none of these countries wants millions more Iraqi refugees pouring across their borders. (As it is, about two million refugees have already left, many of them the trained professionals that neocons had insisted, and the administration had assumed, would run a secular, democratic Iraq.) The United States would continue to maintain a presence on its bases in the region, in Kuwait, Bahrain, and Qatar, in order to fight terrorists and to offset the growing power of Iran.

The infamous “pork” provisions to fund domestic programs, including more than $4 billion in agricultural assistance, such as aid to sugar-beet and spinach growers, were added to the bills in order to nail down certain votes. But much of the added funds were for more protective equipment for the troops, for better treatment of brain injuries, and for improving conditions at Walter Reed hospital, as well as to deal with the still-devastating aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

When the Republicans controlled Congress, they, too, inserted special-interest funds in supplemental bills for the war, and they were in fact the all-time champions of adding “earmarks” to certain legislation. The war-funding bills are “supplemental” because the administration has preferred not to reveal the real costs of the war—now roughly $9 billion a month—in the regular budget but instead to rush an “emergency” supplemental bill through Congress. This policy has been changed for the next budget by new budget director Rob Portman, a former member of Congress. So Congress is just now considering the supplemental bill because the President designed it that way. Last year, the Republican Congress didn’t get the supplemental appropriations bill to Bush until June. Nonetheless, the President and numerous Republicans made such a fuss about “pork” provisions that, as a House strategist told me, they were “more trouble than they were worth.” (The Democrats have already planned to strike some of these add-ons from the final bill.)

Until the supplemental bill was passed, there were considerable doubts about Pelosi’s leadership of the House. In particular she was criticized for her heavy-handedness in dealing with members with whom she had been on bad terms, as well as for depriving the Republicans of opportunities to offer amendments to the resolution (just as previous Republican Congresses had done to the Democrats). She had pledged to be fairer to the opposition than the Republicans had been when they were in power, and she is under pressure from some fellow Democrats to do so. Yet the bill to fund the war and the support for it were so fragile that it too was considered under a “closed rule,” a procedure that bans amendments.

But Pelosi’s strenuous, successful efforts to win the vote for the spending bill, and her tireless working with Democrats with reservations about the bill on the left and right, won her a great deal of respect—both within the party and with political commentators. According to close associates, her problems with the most dug-in antiwar Democrats were considerably frustrating to her, given her own strong antiwar credentials. For over two weeks, she met with members of the Out of Iraq caucus as a group and individually. The essential argument that she and Murtha made was that the hard deadlines for withdrawal and redeployment of the troops contained in the bill amounted to an antiwar position. They also argued that the bill was the Democrats’ best chance to force a “new approach” on the President, and that if it were defeated, the President would have a free hand.

The House had already passed, on February 16, a nonbinding resolution criticizing Bush’s surge by a 246–182 vote. But that was an easier proposition, since it was largely symbolic, and won seventeen Republican votes. The Democrats had expected even more, but Murtha blundered by telling the blog of the antiwar movement MoveOn, an increasingly powerful force, of his forthcoming proposal to block the dispatch of troops to Iraq unless they were properly trained and equipped, as well as given adequate rest time between deployments. (The military manual suggests two years, yet some troops have been sent back to Iraq within a matter of months. Moreover, Pentagon officials recently announced that tours of duty in Iraq will be lengthened, from twelve to fifteen months.) Murtha hinted that this proposal could stop the surge; but he hadn’t discussed his idea with his fellow Democrats and it wasn’t the party’s position.

After the February nonbinding resolution, the next step was harder. Murtha had been the first member of Congress to call, in November 2005, for bringing home the troops; but he isn’t considered a brilliant tactician, even by Democrats who are closely allied with him. In the next round, he played a quieter but crucial role, helping Pelosi convince MoveOn to support the spending bill as an antiwar position.

Some members of the Out of Iraq caucus walked out of an early meeting with Pelosi, demanding a firm deadline for withdrawal by the end of this year. But Pelosi kept up the pressure, and also worked with Hoyer to convince centrist Democrats that Murtha’s proposal about troop training and preparedness had been softened by allowing the President to waive it. Still lacking sufficient votes, Pelosi had to postpone House consideration of the bill for a day, to Friday, March 23; she was finally successful when Barbara Lee of California, a leader of the Out of Iraq caucus, agreed to allow its members to vote for the bill if they chose to. In the end, enough members of the caucus voted for the bill to give the Democratic proposal a bare majority of 218–212, with just two Republicans voting with the Democrats. More antiwar Democrats were ready to cast their votes with Pelosi had she needed them. Fourteen Democratic liberals and centrists (some of them facing a stiff Republican challenge in 2008) voted against the bill. The vote of antiwar liberals against the bill reflected a moral position, but it was also an unrealistic one: money would still have to be spent to protect, feed, and clothe the troops—and even to bring them home.

In the end, the House vote redefined the political consensus on the war. A national survey taken by the Pew Research Center just after the House bill was passed found that 59 percent of the respondents favored a deadline of August 2008 for the withdrawal of most US troops in the war. After the vote, Bush issued one of his numerous threats to veto any bill containing a deadline, saying that “restrictions on our commanders” were unacceptable, as were Congress’s “pet spending projects.” (Bush considers railing against “pork” an effective political strategy, though he never before vetoed any appropriations bill.) Some moderate Republicans who continued to vote for the President’s position argued that since the surge was underway, Congress shouldn’t vote restrictions until the outcome was known. Some Democrats, such as Rhode Island Senator Jack Reed, a principal author of the Senate Democratic bill, argued that whether or not the surge was successful, US forces would still be stuck in the position of trying to police a sectarian conflict and would still be seen with hostility as occupiers of Iraq.

Predictably, the Shiite militia controlled by Moqtada al-Sadr laid low for a time, though press reports and administration claims of a more subdued Baghdad have regularly been punctuated by violence between Sunnis and Shiites—as well as violence against Shiites by Shiites and Sunnis by Sunnis.

If American troops continue to be deployed as a combat force, the US will still be bogged down in a country torn by sectarian rivalries and with a government seemingly incapable of making real reforms, while more soldiers are killed and maimed, and American military readiness virtually destroyed. As critics of the surge predicted, the number of US troops killed in Baghdad has risen; in fact in the first seven weeks of the new strategy that number nearly doubled from the previous period. As William Pfaff pointed out in a recent column in the International Herald Tribune, the US would still be trapped in a cultural and religious war, trying to impose American democratic and secular values on a tribal, nonsecular society.

Freshman Democratic representative Joe Sestak, of Pennsylvania, who has become an eloquent voice against the war, is a former vice-admiral who commanded a carrier battle force off Afghanistan, where twenty out of thirty ships were from other countries, and then in the Persian Gulf before the Iraq war began. In the Persian Gulf, he noticed a troubling lack of allies—“I knew then that something was amiss,” he recently told me. “Most of the violence in Iraq is being done by the Iraqis. It’s tribal leaders fighting one another. The war in Iraq has never been about terror. We doubled down on a bad bet.” In February the new defense secretary, Robert Gates—whose replacement of the widely hated Donald Rumsfeld came as a great relief to most people on Capitol Hill and in the Pentagon—told the House Armed Services Committee, “There are some foreign fighters, but they are not the principal source of the problem.”3

Republicans, including Bush, have argued that Congress shouldn’t interfere with the work of General David Petraeus, an advocate of the surge policy who was overwhelmingly confirmed as leader of the US forces in Iraq by the Senate in January of this year. They speak of him in reverential tones.4 This wasn’t simply a talking point: a Republican senator told me that “our loyalty is now to him, as opposed to the President.”

The fundamental argument against the Democrats’ proposals has been over the wisdom of telling the warring factions in Iraq when the US is planning to withdraw most of its combat troops. Republicans argue that setting such a date simply encourages the enemy to lie low until a certain date, and that the only way to pressure the Maliki government is to maintain a strong military presence, and that such a date for withdrawal is a “recipe for defeat.” John McCain, who has staked his presidential hopes on his support of the war, said that the Senate bill “should be called the Date Certain for Surrender Act.” Yet the Iraqi factions know that US combat troops will be leaving at some point. The combat troops won’t suddenly take off on a given day.

Senator Jack Reed argues that the “only way to force the Iraqi government to make hard choices is to make it understand that we will remain in Iraq in a limited capacity.” Reed argued in the Senate debate that the Democratic proposal is to “change the mission” by redeploying most of the combat troops outside combat zones. The remaining troops will have three missions: training Iraqi forces; the conduct of specific counterterrorist activities, mainly against al-Qaeda; and protecting the American forces that remain in Iraq. The House bill has similar provisions for changing the mission.

But such distinctions aren’t often explained to the public by the press, which focuses on deadlines. Reed also argued that the Senate proposal to make the redeployment date a “goal” is the more “responsible” position, allowing the flexibility to take into account the actual situation in Iraq. Numerous other antiwar advocates agree that this is the more realistic and sensible approach. Having lost a Senate vote on the Democratic leadership’s initial proposal by 48–50 on March 15, the Democrats then added the benchmarks to their proposal along these lines, hoping to get the votes of Pryor and Nelson. In the end, only Nelson switched votes, but on March 29 the Democratic proposal won 50–48, with the help of the increasingly angry Chuck Hagel and of Gordon Smith, who had denounced the war in bitter terms in December.

The Democrats’ position has been moving ever closer to the report of the Iraq Study Group. The bipartisan commission’s recommendation for withdrawing most US combat troops in early 2008 was actually a more radical proposal than the ones that Congress approved in March (though its report refrained from stating a firm deadline), and it also said it would support a short-term surge of US forces to reduce the violence in Baghdad. The November 2006 election emboldened the Democratic members of the Study Group to push for a withdrawal. (As a tradeoff co-chairman James Baker won support for a surge.)

Two well-placed sources told me that Bush has assured Baker that in time the recommendations of the report would be implemented, which of course does not give any assurance that they will. The administration has taken tiny steps to begin diplomatic discussions with Iran and Syria—ostensibly at the initiative of the Iraqis—as the Study Group as well as many Democrats have urged. But there is notable sentiment for the Study Group’s proposals on the Republican side as well. Senate Republican Lamar Alexander, reflecting the views of some other Republicans, said explicitly during the Senate debate that the President should take the Baker-Hamilton report “down off the shelf” and implement it. Some Republicans hold out hope that that will happen before the end of this year, and there is some expectation that if the surge doesn’t “work,” more Republicans will break with the President. Petraeus had told a group of senators that the outcome would be known by August, though it is now expected to last longer than the President first said, and it’s also requiring more troops than the 20,000 Bush announced in January.

The Republicans recognize that they are in an awkward position, in supporting an increasingly unpopular war. Toward the end of the Senate’s March debate on the war-spending bill, Mitch McConnell announced that the Republicans would not stand in the way of sending a final bill to the President. This statement reflected a concern not just for getting funds approved soon (when funds for the war would run out is a matter of dispute), but also a political worry about appearing to be delaying the funds. No one expected the House and the Senate to be able to muster the two-thirds vote necessary for overriding a presidential veto.

Following the passage of the Senate bill in March, Bush gave a more-than-normally petulant speech against the Democratic proposals—prompting Pelosi, like a mother scolding a teenager, to urge Bush to “calm down with the threats” and to “take a deep breath.” This was the first public suggestion by a prominent elected figure that the President lacks maturity—a widely held view in Washington. Pelosi also pointed out to Bush that the new Democratic Congress has its own constitutional role to play.

Though Congress still has a long way to go to force an exit from Iraq, Bush’s support continues to erode, and he faces growing pressures to change his policy. There are in fact some indications that he may have to do so before he leaves office. Each time Congress has voted on the war, its position has hardened. Most Republicans are now ready to accept benchmarks, and perhaps some restrictions on the funding of the war. A restive Republican senator told me toward the end of the Senate debate in March, “No one has presented us a Plan B or C or D. Looking forward, I think you are going to see variations on some of the benchmark language, and contingent funding.”

The Democrats understood that following the expected presidential veto, they might be faced with having to vote for a new bill without a cutoff date, risking a revolt from the antiwar left. Shortly after the recess began, Harry Reid joined Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold, a strong antiwar advocate, in backing a new bill with a mandatory cutoff of funds by next March 31, though also including the new missions for the troops that remain there. (According to Democratic sources on Capitol Hill, Reid had promised this to Feingold in order to win his support for the Senate bill.) Reid has said that he sees this as the logical next step in increasing the pressure on the President and the Republicans; the prospect of voting for such a bill could be used to get the support of liberals who may be asked by the party leadership following a veto to vote for the current appropriations bill without a withdrawal date. Democratic strategists also admit that a proposal to order a withdrawal by an earlier date than those so far approved could be much more difficult to get through the Congress.

Democratic sources told me that the likely compromise between the House and the Senate bills to be sent to the President would include benchmarks and perhaps some sort of goal for ending the war, but not the House’s firm deadlines. Winning House support for such a proposal will be a serious challenge for Speaker Pelosi, but there is confidence that she can pull this off—by promising more restrictive measures in the future. On the supplemental bill itself, these officials say that eventually Congress will probably have to give way and not require or even set a goal for a pullout of the troops by a certain date. But that could come later. As of this writing, the President and the Democrats are conducting a minuet over whether they would meet at the White House to see if a compromise was possible. But Bush’s press secretary said on April 10 that “this is not a negotiation.”

In any event, Bush is fighting a political phony war over “funding the troops”: Congress will supply the money for the troops in Iraq. When it does, he will undoubtedly claim a great victory. But the wars over Iraq between the Democratic Congress and the President, and within the Democratic Party, as well as within Iraq itself, aren’t going to end any time soon.

—April 11, 2007

  1. 1

    For a superb description of how this has affected US society, and the flaws in the administration’s reasoning, see Zbigniew Brzezinski, “Terrorized by ‘War on Terror’,” The Washington Post, March 25, 2007.

  2. 2

    See Walter Dellinger and Christopher Schroeder, “The Purse Isn’t Congress’s Only Weapon,” The New York Times, March 14, 2007.

  3. 3

    For a critique of Rumsfeld’s “reign of terror,” see Andrew Cockburn, Rumsfeld: His Rise, Fall, and Catastrophic Legacy (Scribner, 2007).

  4. 4

    For a contrary point of view, see the recent piece by Peter Galbraith, “The Surge,” The New York Review, March 15, 2007.

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