Follow the Money

By Walter Pincus
Sunday, November 19, 2006

Now that they'll soon be back in control, congressional Democrats are looking to play a role in shaping U.S. policy on the Iraq war. If they want a precedent to follow, there's a good one -- from the Vietnam War era.

I witnessed this precedent up close nearly four decades ago, when I worked on Capitol Hill for Sen. J. William Fulbright (D-Ark.), then chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. In 1969, Congress's ruling Democrats began to offer amendments to funding bills -- often approved with Republican votes -- to limit President Richard M. Nixon's military alternatives in Southeast Asia. Although the Hatfield-McGovern amendment to cut off money for the war was defeated in August 1970, it accelerated Nixon's steps toward Vietnamization of the fighting. And three years later, with withdrawal of U.S. forces having begun, Congress voted to cut off all funding for "offensive" military action, sealing the deal.

The first of the limiting amendments from that time could be a model for today's Democrats. Approved in December 1969, the so-called Laos-Thailand amendment to the Defense Appropriations bill of 1970 provided that no money could be used to put U.S. ground combat troops in Laos or Thailand. The purpose of that language, which originated with Fulbright and the Foreign Relations Committee, was to set up barriers to the automatic expansion of the war and to hold the Nixon administration to its promises.

In testimony before the committee, administration officials had denied that any U.S. ground troops were fighting the North Vietnamese or Viet Cong in Laos or Thailand and had insisted that, based on then-current operational plans, none would be needed. But earlier claims from officials in the Johnson and Nixon administrations about the cost of the war and the number of U.S. and foreign troops that would be needed had proved wrong.

So Fulbright put language into the legislation that would require the administration to return to Congress for funding if it found that it had to go into Laos or Thailand. I remember Fulbright saying that he only wanted to make the White House and the Pentagon realize that their original plan was not working -- and admit it to Congress and explain why, rather than just "stay the course," to use the current vernacular.

The Laos-Thailand amendment got the administration's attention. In May 1970, U.S. troops invaded Cambodia in what the Nixon White House described as a limited incursion aimed at destroying North Vietnamese supply depots that fed arms into South Vietnam. The troops went into Cambodia rather than Laos, where the Ho Chi Minh trail was most vulnerable, because the administration didn't want to have to admit to Congress that its plans were not working.

Fulbright's response was to offer another amendment to a defense spending bill to ensure that the incursion would end within a month, as the White House had promised. The so-called Cooper-Church amendment prohibited any of the already appropriated money from being used to support ground troops in Cambodia after June 1970. This time, the Nixon allies filibustered the amendment instead of allowing it to become law. But the troops were out by the end-of-June deadline.

Democrats today could follow the Fulbright pattern, rather than try to force the giant step of ending the war immediately (as the Hatfield-McGovern amendment failed to do). Bush administration officials, perhaps aware of the Vietnam precedent, have never linked funding of the Iraq war to any specific military or political objectives. In fact, until recently the war has been financed primarily through supplemental appropriations, because Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and his associates have always said that they could not project how much spending would be necessary.

The recommendations due next month from the bipartisan Iraq Study Group may provide the language that could be put into legislation. For example, if the group recommends that Iraqi security forces be increased to a certain level -- say 400,000 -- a measure could limit spending to the amount necessary to train only that number and no more. (The recommended level of Iraqi troops has already risen, from 325,000 early on to 375,000 more recently.)

Congress could also adopt an idea put forward by Rep. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.), who is in line to become chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. Taking President Bush at his word that "when the Iraqis stand up, the U.S. will stand down," Skelton has proposed that for every three Iraqi brigades that U.S. trainers certify as ready to lead the fight against insurgents, one U.S. brigade could be brought home. How about adding an amendment to that effect to the 2008 defense authorization bill?

It would be a start.


Walter Pincus covers national security for

The Washington Post.

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