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Short-Circuiting the Surge

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By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Friday, January 5, 2007

The shift in power heralded by the Democrats' assumption of control in the House and Senate yesterday could lead quickly to a direct confrontation with President Bush if he chooses, as many expect, to "surge" additional troops into Iraq.

The surge, which opponents look upon as a soothing label for an outright escalation of an unpopular war, is seen by most Democrats and some Republicans as a rebuke to the majority whose November ballots signaled a negative verdict on the Iraq war.

They also argue that the surge cannot work because it proposes a military solution to what is primarily a political problem: the increasingly deadly confrontation between Iraq's Sunni and Shiite communities. The violent reaction to the taunting of Saddam Hussein by Shiite executioners underscored the futility of expecting additional U.S. troops to repair the damage done by three years of flawed policies.

But Democrats will barely have time to celebrate their new congressional authority before confronting a hard fact of the American constitutional system: If Bush wants to continue or expand the Iraq war, Congress has precious few tools available to stop the commander in chief.

As a result, Democrats are quietly but urgently seeking ways of pressuring the president to change course, including the possibility of having Congress reconsider its original authorization of force, passed in October 2002.

Even Bush's critics doubt that the broadest measure, cutting off funds for the president's policies, could be effective or has the votes to pass. Yet Bush's opponents will be emboldened if he embarks on a surge, especially if it is not linked to what Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the new chairman of the Armed Services Committee, calls "milestones" for political reconciliation that the Iraqi government will have to reach. Levin, whose views are shared by many Democrats, also insists that any surge should be part of an "overall plan of troop reduction" that would begin "within four to six months."

Given the limited options, Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.), the Foreign Relations Committee chairman, has suggested to his colleagues that the strongest response to the surge would be a congressional resolution explicitly opposing the step.

Whereas cutting off funds is a "hollow threat," Biden said in an interview this week, a congressional resolution could have a powerful effect if it drew support from the significant number of Republican senators who are increasingly alienated from Bush's policies. Biden, who expects to offer his proposal at a meeting of Democratic senators today, argued that an anti-surge resolution might not bind the president but would exert considerable pressure on him to reconsider his approach.

More intriguing, Biden is studying whether Congress might reconsider the original Iraq war resolution, now as out of date as the administration's prewar claims. The resolution includes references to a "significant chemical and biological weapons capability" that Iraq didn't have and repeated condemnations of "the current Iraqi regime," i.e., the Saddam Hussein regime that fell long ago. In effect, the resolution authorizes a war on an enemy who no longer exists and for purposes that are no longer relevant.

Biden candidly acknowledges that it is difficult to find precedent for reconsidering a war resolution. But his idea is not as far-fetched as it might seem, as legal scholars -- including Michael J. Glennon on this page last month -- have noted that the war being fought on behalf of the Maliki government bears little resemblance to the war Congress authorized. Yet his idea of revisiting the authority granted Bush could be a forceful way for Congress to reassert itself and encourage a full-scale debate on the future of American policy in Iraq and in Afghanistan.

Biden, along with many others in both parties, is alarmed that the intense focus on Iraq is distracting attention from a disaster in the making in Afghanistan, with the resurgence of the Taliban. "If we're surging troops anywhere, it should be in Afghanistan," Biden said. Adding troops there would give the United States "the moral high ground" in its quest for more forces from NATO allies.

For his part, Levin believes that an anti-surge resolution has a reasonable chance of passing the Senate. He is also considering pressing for a resolution that he and Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) have crafted that calls for benchmarks and a withdrawal plan.

Bush's critics are careful to say they still hope he will abandon the surge idea, which Levin sees as a desperate "Hail Mary" pass. Yes, Bush has the power to order a surge. But if he insists on doing so in the face of widespread skepticism, a president proudly famous for relying on his gut will discover that he faces a Congress that does not regard his instincts as a reliable guide to the defense of American interests.

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