Thursday, May 03, 2007

The War in Washington Over the War in Iraq

Elizabeth Drew has a penetrating article over at the current New York Review of Books on "The War in Washington." She's talking about the partisan war between Congress and the White House over military funding for Iraq -- in the short term -- and over the ultimate fate of the Iraqi deployment over the long haul. Note, first off, that Drew -- a respected and longstanding Washington journalistic "insider" -- is liberal, and she clearly dislikes the Bush administration. If I'm inferring her language from the article correctly, she sees Iraq as the prime example of the "administration's blunders" in executive policymaking, both foreign and domestic.

That said, the article is excellent for its comprehensive coverage of the congressional debate over war appropriations, and it's also especially good in its likely prescience on the probable outcome of the war. Here are some key excerpts:

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....

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. 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. 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."
You'll notice in this passage Drew's contempt for the president. On the other hand, Drew's realistic: The idea of "redeployment" is not new, and in fact is something the Iraq Study Group recommended as part of its U.S. exit strategy, not to mention other top analysts, including Fareed Zakaria. Nevertheless, I'm a bit troubled by some of the tone of much of her paper. The following passage, for example, seems oblivious to the potential for the outbreak of sectarian violence on a genocidal scale should the U.S. withdraw precipitously:

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.
I've been a big supporter of the administration's surge policy, and I agree with General David Petraeus -- who's been in the news a bit lately -- that it's too early to tell whether the military buildup and tactical readjustments will lead to eventual victory. I can say that we cannot "cut and run" (to use some of the earlier language of the war debate) from Iraq. We still have a responsibility to the Iraqi people to establish security before American troops depart. And even then, the U.S. will retain some type of "offshore" mission, backing the indigenous Iraqi forces with training and logistics, and perhaps providing air support in a newer version some type of "no-fly zones" designed to separate potential sectarian combatants, and to especially ward off outside intervention from nearby Iran or Syria, which could throw Iraq into the ultimate bloodbath.

See my earlier post by Reuel Marc Gerecht on "
What Would Surrender in Iraq Look Like?" for a dire analysis of an early American drawdown. Also, be sure to read Bruce Berkowitz's commentary on weak-kneed "war" Democrats, from the Wall Street Journal, published April 27: "Certified Madness: America Might Not Have Beaten the Japanese if Jack Murtha Had Been Around."

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