Shock but No Awe

Introduction

As the Iraq War and U.S. occupation began their fifth year on March 19, few Americans were paying attention to what was going on in Iraq. Instead the nation’s eyes were riveted on the halls of Congress as the Democrats waged a battle to pass a bill setting a timetable for the withdrawal of combat troops.

The bill was a political victory for the country and indeed the globe. For the first time in more than four years of war, the debate moved from the question of if the U.S. should leave to when the U.S. should leave.

But the devil is in the details. Upon closer inspection, the politics might be right but the actual policy within the bill is a far cry from what both Iraqis and the U.S. public wants.

And while the debate lingers as the President has vowed to veto the bill and Congress ponders the next steps, Bush’s “surge” continues, bringing 30,000 more U.S. soldiers to Baghdad while the violence continues and soldiers and innocent civilians perish.

A Democratic Congress: An Opportunity for Change?

The 2006 Elections

The mandate from the 2006 mid-term elections has widely been interpreted as a mandate for changing U.S. policy toward Iraq. But the shift in campaign rhetoric around Iraq wasn’t a central Democratic strategy. Indeed, it was Ned Lamont’s successful primary challenge to Senator Joe Lieberman (D-CT) that moved the debate. Until Lamont succeeded in his primary bid based around the central message of bringing the troops home, Democrats were taking the trajectory of simply criticizing the President’s conduct of the war. Lamont changed that dynamic, forcing candidates across the country to define their position on troop withdrawals.

Putting the Iraq issue front and center in the campaigns, Democrats took narrow majorities in the House and much to the surprise of pundits (and the party itself) the Senate.

January 2007: Democrats Take Charge

While Democrats came to power their narrow majorities injected caution into the Party who (like the Republican Party) is more concerned about holding office than implementing sound policy. The election also resulted in a wider divide of values across the party. “Anybody but Bush” voters elected many Democrats in traditional Republican strongholds while progressives were able to gain ground with their “Bring home the troops message” in solid blue states. Both poles of the Party (left and right) became stronger making it more difficult to forge consensus. Hence, it was not surprising that the first seven legislative issues for the Democratic congress did not include Iraq.

However, Iraq quickly moved on to the agenda with Bush’s announcement on January 10, 2007 that he would send an additional 20,000 troops to Baghdad in a “surge” aimed at quelling the violence. Bush also sent Congress two spending requests for the war: $93 billion for the rest of the 2007 fiscal year and $140 billion for the 2008 fiscal year. Democrats jumped on Bush’s announcement and shortly began debating resolutions opposing the escalation and started a flurry of hearings on Iraq in virtually every congressional committee.

But momentum for change stalled as the Senate failed to pass a resolution opposing the escalation. And fearful of being labeled “weak on defense”, Democratic leadership penned talking points underscoring that they would not cut off funds to troops in the field. It became unclear how or even if the Democrats would challenge the President’s funding request.

The Rubber Hits the Road: The War Supplemental

Bush officially asked Congress for $93 billion on February 5, 2007 for the remainder of fiscal year 2007. These funds were on top of the $70 billion Congress approved last year for fiscal year 2007, bringing the year’s total to $163 billion. With the nation largely opposed to Bush’s escalation and in favor of a timeline for withdrawal, the debate around the spending bill should not have become about the money, it should have focused on the policy.

Instead of directly challenging Bush on his funding request, some Democrats sought to dodge responsibility altogether. Presidential hopeful, Joe Biden, questioned whether Congress had the legitimate constitutional authority to defund a military action against the President’s wishes. Ironically it was Bush’s latest Supreme Court nominee, Justice Alito, who stated to Senator Biden during his confirmation hearing “(t)he constitution… gives Congress the power of the purse, and obviously military operations can’t be carried out for any length of time without Congressional appropriations.

Seeing weakness from the Democrats, Conservatives such as Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) openly challenged Democrats to pass a bill opposing the president, “If you think supporting the troops is bringing them home, then why not pass a bill that does that?” In asking this question, Graham aptly pointed out the Democrats main weakness—the lack of consensus within the Democratic Party on what an alternative Iraq policy should look like.

Fumbling for a Strategy: Murtha

All eyes focused on the office of Rep. Jack Murtha (D-PA), the architect of the spending bill that would reach the House floor. A long time critic of the war, and author of a bill calling for an immediate redeployment of the troops, many expected Murtha to write a bill that would effectively end the war and present a clear strategy for the Democrats.

But instead of taking Graham’s challenge head on, Murtha sought to stop the war through slight-of-hand maneuvers such as holding back troops that were not combat ready, ending stop-loss policies, and cutting funds for military contractors. While cleverly putting Democrats on the side of the troops, Murtha’s strategy didn’t adequately engage other members of congress, resulting in severe backlash from more conservative Democrats. His strategy, though not the policy, was also openly attacked by Republicans. And Murtha lacked popular support as his back door maneuvering removed public opinion and the grassroots from the debate. The Democratic leadership, slow to devise an initial strategy, quickly moved in to take control over the process in an attempt to resuscitate the bill.

A Weak Foundation: Pelosi’s Compromise

Congressional analysts were quick to point out that the funding bill became House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s first major challenge. Many argued that if she failed to pass a bill, it would show great weakness in the Democratic leadership. Democrats rose to answer this conservative framing instead of putting the pressure back on the President who was driving the country in the exact opposite direction than the voters expressed. Instead of asking the question if the country should pony up an additional $93 billion for war, the question became, can Pelosi (D-CA) pass a bill?

With a diversity of opinion within the Democratic Caucus, the focus became on what compromise could be hashed out between the conservative Blue Dogs and Progressives. There was never a fight about the overarching Iraq policy. Instead, the biggest brawl the public saw was between House Appropriations committee Chairman David Obey (D-WI) and the mother of a Marine and an anti-war activist, Tina Richards. Responding from Richard’s plea to stop the war Obey screamed, “We don’t have the votes.” But it was never clear that Obey and others were in fact seeking the votes to end the war. Instead they were seeking the votes for what ended up being a weak compromise.

The Result: A Political Victory but Bad Policy

With narrow majorities the House and Senate both passed the emergency spending bills. Headlines across the nation portrayed the bills as major challenges to the White House, setting deadlines for the withdrawal of combat troops. However, little attention was paid to the actual content of the bills.

A Bad Policy

Much attention has been paid to the waivers granted to the President in the bills to allow non-combat troops to be sent into battle. But the larger policy question, that of withdrawals, has largely been overlooked. The withdrawal of “combat troops” is not well-defined in the legislation, potentially leaving 40-60,000 troops in Iraq when the March or August 2008 deadlines arrive (March is the Senate deadline and August is the House deadline). Both versions authorize three main categories of troops that can remain:

  • Trainers: Current levels are approximately 6,000. But the Iraq Study Group recommended 10,000-20,000. Potentially the President could use the ISG numbers.
  • Counter-terrorist forces: Marine Colonel Peter Devlin, stationed in Ramadi, Iraq, wrote a detailed and recently updated classified memo in August 2006 on the situation in al-Anbar province, “State of the Insurgency in Al-Anbar.” He concluded that an additional division (15,000–20,000 troops) would be required to defeat the terrorists. The bill only provides for forces to attack al-Qaida but the definition of terrorists could easily be expanded by the President.
  • Protection for Embassy/Diplomats: The intent in the language is unclear but at a minimum this would mean leaving protection for the Embassy in the Green Zone. It would likely include leaving protection for the Baghdad airport and the road between the airport and Green Zone. A larger troop presence could be larger if they are protecting outlying areas where the provincial reconstruction teams are located. Force protection for these scenarios could range between 5,000-20,000. None of these projections include estimates for the number of military contractors that would be in support of the operations. The bill language does not have any restrictions on contractors who currently number between 75,000-150,000

The bills are also weak on providing measures that are needed in tandem with a drawdown. The bills make economic aid dependent on the performance of the Iraqi government. Tying the aid in this manner presents a similar dynamic to the sanctions era, where the population was punished for the actions of the Iraqi leadership. More importantly, cutting aid deprives the population that the U.S. needs support from to reduce their tendency to engage in terrorist/insurgency activities.

To be sure, there is some good language on regional diplomacy, veterans health care, and active duty health care but overall these measures are a weak band-aid for a bill that will continue the U.S. military presence & occupation and generate the same problems for years to come.

The policies outlined in the bill largely follow the bipartisan Iraq Study Group’s (ISG) recommendations from their November 2006 report. But the ISG recommendations were aimed at bridging a political impasse between the President and the public, i.e. they were aimed at providing the political cover needed for the President to change his policy—not for putting forward the best possible policy. And with Bush standing steadfast against even the modest ISG reforms, lawmakers should be pressing for the best policy.

The Impact on the Anti-War Movement

While the change in tenor on Iraq was a great success for the anti-war movement, the supplemental debate caused a serious dilemma within the movement. The vote forced organizations to pick supporting politics vs. opposing a bad policy.

David Sirota, co-chairman of the Progressive States Network, argued in favor of the bill, anticipating that if the bill failed, that “House Democratic leaders would have come back to write a “clean” supplemental bill–one that funds the war but does not include the binding legislation to end it.” He concluded, “As long as binding language ending the war was in these bills, voting ‘yes’ was clearly the way to bring the country closer to achieving the anti-war movement’s goal.”

Criticizing those in the movement who supported the bill, historian Howard Zinn wrote, “When a social movement adopts the compromises of legislators, it has forgotten its role, which is to push and challenge the politicians, not to fall in meekly behind them.”

But Zinn likely overlooked the lobbying efforts many groups have undertaken for the last four years. Grassroots have continuously challenged those in Congress and in doing so, gave progressives in Congress a much stronger hand in the negotiations around the spending bill. Public opinion, while widely against the conduct of the war is not for the immediate withdrawal that the anti-war movement wants. And Sirota missed the huge loopholes that exist in the bill, allowing the war to continue even after the “deadlines” are met.

Oddly enough, neither side in this debate seems to understand the value in the other, nor how the outcome actually increased the strength of the anti-war movement. Passage of a bill that calls for bringing many of the troops home in an 18-month timeframe is a victory given the narrow Democratic majorities in Congress and with a President who has vowed to stay in Iraq even if his only supporters are his wife and his dog.

Given these challenges, a victory was achieved but it has to be seen as part of a larger strategy over the course of this year where there are votes on the Defense Authorization bill, and Defense Appropriations bill, along with another supplemental. By pointing out the large deficiencies in the bill, it provides leverage for future concessions and a way to end the war sooner.

The Aftermath: What Next

Shortly after the bill passed, the President held a news conference announcing that he would veto the bill. This news conference was followed by two weeks of veto threats from the White House along with an invitation for Democrats to visit Bush for a lecture on why they should support his escalation and never ending war in Iraq. With this showdown looming many are asking what the next steps will be.

Options

Overriding a veto is impossible given the close passage in both chambers of Congress. And failing to pass any bill, effectively cutting the funds off isn’t politically feasible given that the Democrats fell prey to the White House’s framing of funding as the only way to “support the troops.” Assuming that the House and Senate will pass the compromise report reconciling the two different versions of the bill the following options exist for the next steps:

1) A Worse Bill: A new bill that would keep the same conditions and waivers but would make the dates for withdrawal goals instead of deadlines;

2) Pass the same bill again but without the congressional “pork” barrel projects;

3) A Short-term Funding Bill;

4) A Stronger Bill: A new bill to provide funding to bring all the troops home.

Passage of a weaker bill is unlikely given that lawmakers have taken a strong stand and are strongly supported by the public. A similar bill without the pork would be welcome but could easily be cast as a political stunt given the veto of virtually the same bill.

Many Democratic lawmakers are eyeing the possibility of a short-term funding bill. Given that the president’s war request was $93 billion and Congress passed a $121 billion bill, but the Congressional Research Service just released a report that the Pentagon has funding for the war until July, a short-term bill would only need to provide $30 billion (current spending is $10 billion per month and the 2007 fiscal year ends on Sept 30). Beyond the faulty math problem, the short-term solution simply continues the larger policy problem and Congress and the President would have the same confrontations in the Defense Authorization bill, Defense Appropriations bill, and the FY2008 supplemental.

The best option is to take up Sen. Graham’s challenge and present a stronger bill that would provide funds to bring all of the troops home. It is clear that Bush is out of step with the American public and has no desire to resolve the conflict nor negotiate a compromise so any of the first three options will likely fail. A clean bill to bring the troops home would empower the grassroots and allow citizens across the country to get involved in the debate. It would also allow for the voices of Iraqis to enter into this one-sided discussion as tens of thousands of Iraqis demonstrated on April 10th against the occupation. This type of bill would also put the most pressure on Republicans and conservative Democrats who would be needed to override a veto.

Role of the Anti-War Movement

Over the next short period there are three primary tasks for the anti-war movement. Pressure Republicans and conservative Democrats, shore up Progressives, and conduct massive public education on why funding withdrawal is the right policy. The anti-war movement must realize that Congress is not comprised of peaceniks, but also that political compromises will be made along the way. Constant pressure from both sides will be needed. In the long process to end the Vietnam War, over 30 votes were taken on various pieces of legislation. Public pressure was the key to moving legislation and changing lawmakers positions. That same pressure is needed now.

Erik Leaver is the Carol and Ed Newman Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and the policy outreach coordinator for Foreign Policy In Focus.