Columns written for the Berkeley Daily Planet newspaper, Berkeley, CA




June 1, 2007

One of the old lessons we are relearning through the Iraq war experience is that in any conflict, the faction which is less concerned about catastrophic consequences resulting from their actions has a decided advantage over the faction which has those worries.

And, yes, one might apply this to the fact that “their” Iraqis seem to be winning over “our” Iraqis, true, but what I really was talking about is why President George W. Bush and his friends have the current upper hand over the Democrats and Republican war opponents in the Iraq war funding fight.

All of this has been prompted, obviously, by the events over the past month in which Congress passed a war-funding measure that included what were commonly called “timetables” for an end to the U.S. military involvement in Iraq, Bush vetoed the measure, saying that he would never sign a war-funding bill with such “timetables”, and Congress then passed a new war-funding measure (H.R. 2206, the “U.S. Troop Readiness, Veterans' Care, Katrina Recovery, and Iraq Accountability Appropriations Act, 2007”) that took out the “timetables,” but included something called “benchmarks” which the government of Iraq must meet, over time, or else something bad will happen.

One could do a long study on the meaning of such things as “timetables” and “benchmarks” in American legislation. I haven’t done such a long study, and I have to confess that I have not followed the ins and outs of the congressional war-funding strategies as closely as I’d like. Perhaps you have not, either. Whether this legislation will eventually lead to an end to the U.S. military occupation of Iraq during the presidency of George W. Bush, or whether it delays a U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq until after inauguration day in January of 2009, is debatable, and may only become evident with time. But for those who thought the Democratic electoral victories of November, 2006 would either bring an immediate end to the U.S. involvement in the Iraq war, or legislation mandating a U.S. military withdrawal by a date certain, this is a decided dashing of hopes.
But if the (barely) Democratically-controlled Congress indeed has an electoral mandate for a swift end to U.S. military involvement in Iraq, why did Congress back off their original date-certain-withdrawal legislation?

The dilemma was summed up by one anti-war Democrat, Congressmember Louise Slaughter of Buffalo, New York.

In February, during opening debate on the war funding measure, Ms. Slaughter gave a stirring Congressional floor speech against “blank check” funding of the war, saying that “the simple reality is that two thirds of Americans, myself included, do not trust the President's judgment when it comes to this war. It is a conflict that has been defined by mismanagement and misinformation since before it began, and the results have been devastating for the Iraqi people and for our men and women in uniform. …We need to stop this surge, and change what we are doing in Iraq. We need to promote a political solution and a diplomatic solution to that nation's problems…. And at this moment in history, to give this Administration yet another blank check to send our troops on the wrong mission…, it wouldn't be worthy of the dedicated soldiers this body claims so sincerely to support.”

But two months later, while voting for the new bill that failed to set a timetable for U.S. withdrawal, Slaughter was decidedly more downbeat, noted that "the president and his allies in Congress have put our soldiers in harm's way and Mr. Bush is willing to keep them there no matter how much they suffer. If this Congress delayed funding by continuing to back a bill we cannot pass at this time, we would not force the president to end the war. All indications are he would leave our soldiers in Iraq, and without adequate funding they would have to do even more with even less."

That is a start, but does not go far enough in explaining the anti-war Democrats’ dilemma. Mr. Bush actually has two options if war-funding is withdrawn—both options potentially devastating to long-term anti-war interests—and the president’s hand is enormously strengthened by the fact that he has already shown he does not mind risking bad consequences to U.S. troops or to the country of Iraq in order to pursue his own long-term goals.

Mr. Bush’s first option in the event of passing of a war-fund-withdrawal measure, as Ms. Slaughter suggested, would be to leave the U.S. troops where they are, getting the money from other sources. He has that power. A more responsible president would figure out the way to fully fund the troops in such an event, but there is every reason to believe that this president would deliberately allow egregious shortages in certain areas in order to advance a political agenda.

This is, after all, an administration that allowed U.S. troops to stay in harms way for months upon months with inferior combat vehicle armor that was allowing soldiers to get blown up by roadside bombs. Asked by a member of the Tennessee National Guard, you remember, "why do we soldiers have to dig through local landfills for pieces of scrap metal and compromised ballistic glass to uparmor our vehicles? Our vehicles are not armored. We’re digging pieces of rusted scrap metal and compromised ballistic glass that’s already been shot up, dropped, busted, picking the best out of this scrap to put on our vehicles to take into combat.", then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld replied that three years into the war, the army was putting armor on combat vehicles “(at a) rate that is all that can be accomplished at this moment,” adding famously and airily that “as you know, you go to war with the Army you have. They’re not the Army you might want or wish to have at a later time.”

Rumsfeld has since left the building, but his spirit remains in the Bush Administration. And an administration that let American soldiers unnecessarily suffer in combat, perhaps so that favored corporations like Halliburton could get cushy insider contracts, would certainly have no qualms about allowing the same thing so that the blame could be placed upon the Democrats. That is, after all, the Karl Rove way.

Democrats could try to force a troop withdrawal by specifically rescinding the original 2002 legislation authorizing the Iraq invasion but in that event, the Bush Administration might argue that once a war is authorized by Congress, Congress has no right to unauthorize it while such a war is in progress. That would be a Constitutional issue which would have to be decided by the United States Supreme Court. Good luck with that.

But disturbingly, Democrats and anti-war Republicans might not fare better if Mr. Bush were to “honor” a Congressional withdrawal of war funds and pull the troops out of Iraq. This would be in no ways comparable to the situation in Vietnam when the U.S. withdrew its military forces from combat, with a South Vietnamese government intact and an army in the field. A precipitous U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq would almost certainly result in a period of chaos and instability as various factions moved in to fill the U.S. void—Shi’a, Sunni, Kurdish, Iranian, and al-Queda, certainly.

There is enormous political danger here within the United States. Such chaos and instability would be blamed on the Democrats by the Bush Administration and their media friends, and while there is solid anti-war opinion currently within the United States, it is not based upon a unified theory. That opinion could turn, for example, if a U.S. withdrawal resulted in a wider Middle East war that seriously threatened Israel or if al-Queda—which is clearly benefiting from the U.S. military presence in Iraq—attempted to launch another terrorist strike either on U.S. soil or at U.S. interests elsewhere in the world. Either of those two events, if enough Americans blamed it on Congressional troop withdrawal legislation, could turn a favored Democratic victory in next year’s presidential race into a Republican triumph, and under those circumstances, God only knows what a President Guliani or McCain might do, especially if that was accompanied by a reversal of Democratic majorities in the U.S. Senate and House.

Am I suggesting that progressives and other anti-war forces should, therefore, do nothing about the war in Iraq because the consequences of doing something are dire. Absolutely not. But in analyzing the current actions of the Democratically-controlled Congress, one has to take into account that these are consequences that are much on their minds. My guess is that the current crisis will have to deepen in some way—either in Iraq or inside the United States itself—before Congress on its own is ready to take the leap into those dark spaces.