Purse Strings and Pragmatism

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By Melvin R. Laird
Wednesday, January 17, 2007

The brewing fight in Congress over continued funding of the war in Iraq will not be the country's first. It is an ominous reminder of 1975, when Congress cut off funding for the Vietnam War three years after our combat troops had left. With the assistance we promised South Vietnam in the 1972 Paris Accords -- U.S. equipment, replacement parts and ammunition -- it had won every major battle since we left. But Congress lost the will to keep our promise and killed the appropriation. The result was a bloodbath.

I spent 16 years in Congress, much of the time on the Appropriations defense subcommittee grilling defense secretaries about the conduct of the Vietnam War. Then, as defense secretary I spent four years on the other side of the table, holding fast to an exit strategy I believed in, "Vietnamization." I never lost a vote during those four years. But it would have been devastating if Congress had cut the purse strings before our troops were withdrawn and before the South Vietnamese had learned to stand on their own.

Democrats are positioned to offer a plan for Iraq, but cutting off funding is not a plan. Holding hearings to excoriate the executive branch is not a plan. Emotional oratory about casualties is not a plan. Such is the stuff of dinner-party debates and protest rallies. It is not what the American people need from their elected representatives, and it is not what they voted for in November.

To Congress, which has the opportunity to make a difference, I offer some perspective:

· Congress must stop the partisan gamesmanship that feeds on itself and becomes an end rather than a means. It is a foolish sport that feeds the ego of the players and wearies the spectators. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid have already begun to squander the trust they were given in November. Surprisingly, at least from an old Republican such as myself, the best hope for leadership I see now in the majority party is Sen. Hillary Clinton. She is highly motivated to tread a path to success in Iraq; she knows that without it, she will never be president. Those who hope to win reelection in less than two years would do well to follow her example. In 1972, the Democratic presidential nominee, George McGovern, carried only two states because he had no plan for the war; he only criticized the Vietnamization withdrawal plan.

· The best thing Congress could do now is look at the bigger picture with civility and bipartisanship. America needs a broad national security strategy whose elements include the defense of democracy at home and abroad, the economy, the environment, health care, Social Security and commitments to our allies. In military jargon, simply fighting terrorism is not strategic; it is tactical. In crafting a larger national security strategy, Congress needs to both know and inform the will of the people. We never did this during the Vietnam War; nor has any Congress or administration in recent memory seemed willing to trust the American people to understand and make choices about what is at stake and what we are willing to pay in time, money and lives. Congress must also realize that if there is no settlement in the Middle East, the price of oil will more than double. Lawmakers must recognize the threat this poses to our economy.

· Defense spending must be substantially increased. Since 1986 the defense budget has been slighted while needs have only grown. The all-volunteer military needs better wages and better equipment. The troops today have what we lacked in Vietnam -- the will to win and unit cohesiveness and pride. What they don't need is a Congress that thinks it is doing them a favor by cutting off funding for Iraq. They need a Congress that makes national defense a budget priority. Even including the war in Iraq, defense spending is still a sliver of gross domestic product.

· Congress must take the lead in demanding accountability from the Iraqi government. Our troops are in escalating danger from Shiite militias because Iraq's elected leaders do not have the will or the ability to crack down. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has been unable to keep the tribal and sectarian factions of Iraq in balance. We cannot do that for him. If he can't or won't do it, he should step down, or we cannot justify the continued presence of U.S. troops in Iraq.

· Finally, Congress must set the tone by admitting who the enemy is -- political correctness be damned. There is the moderate, Westernized Islam on which we have hung our hopes, and there is everyone else. The call to jihad is powerful, and it is apparently irresistible in the Third World where attempts to export Western culture and values have failed. If widely adopted, radical Islam will fail them even more in the end. And if allowed to play out to its goal of world domination, radical Islam will make the "domino theory" of Southeast Asia pale by comparison.

The writer served as a Republican House member from 1953 to 1969 and as secretary of defense from 1969 to 1973.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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