Time for A Bargain On the War
In the continuing battle between the Democratic Congress and the Bush administration over policy in Iraq, logic is on the Democrats' side, but the crucial political leverage belongs to the president. It behooves the realists in both camps to recognize what the troops and the country have at stake -- and negotiate a compromise.
The situation arises out of the mixed verdict of the public. In 2004, a year and a half after President Bush began the war of choice to change the regime running Iraq, his policy was challenged directly by John Kerry, his Democratic opponent, and Bush was reelected by a clear margin of both popular and electoral votes. Two years later, public opinion had shifted, and Democrats captured both sides of the Capitol, largely if not exclusively on their opposition to the Iraq war.
The latter verdict -- backed by public opinion polls -- carries more weight. So the Democrats are fully justified in their effort to limit the use of war funds by imposing deadlines or target dates for the withdrawal of American combat forces.
But that logic does not overcome the fundamental fact of political and governmental life -- that George Bush is committed to seeking victory in Iraq and that the Constitution makes him commander in chief until noon on Jan. 20, 2009. As long as he retains that office, and as long as he is seeking that goal, no one can veto his orders to the armed forces or dispute his authority to direct the generals in Iraq to carry out his plans.
Congress has the power of the purse and, in theory, could cut off funding for the troops he has deployed. But few Democrats are prepared for that drastic a step. Instead, they would like to redefine the mission to one of support and training for the Iraqi forces, hoping against hope that a staged American withdrawal would force Iraq's Shiite and Sunni politicians to compose the differences that have brought that nation close to all-out civil war.
Under the scenario that has official Washington locked in suspense, the House and Senate Democrats will meet soon to prepare a final version of the emergency funding bill that Bush has requested to finance the next year of the war. Once that bill reaches the White House, it will be vetoed because of the limitations Democrats attach to Bush's use of the funds. The Democrats lack the votes to overcome a veto, so an impasse is inevitable.
What happens next is the question, because both sides are stubborn and both are convinced of their own rightness. What ought to happen is clear. There ought to be direct talks between them -- with senior administration officials on one side of the table and leaders of the House and Senate on the other. It might not be a bad idea to bring senior officers back from Iraq for the talks to give the conferees a sense of reality.
From the start, Democrats ought to concede one big point: Absent any readiness on their part to cut off funds to the troops in Iraq, those forces will be there as long as George Bush wants them to remain. Once that point is conceded, Bush should be called upon to pay some attention to the Democrats' demands -- and the public opinion that supports them.
At a minimum, he should say he is willing to enforce on our Iraqi allies the requirements everyone knows are necessary steps for a political settlement of the internal conflict: the agreement on distribution of oil revenue, the promised amendments to the constitution, the creation of local and regional governments. Bush should indicate publicly -- for the sake of American public opinion and as a clear signal to the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki -- that without those pledges being met, he cannot justify the sacrifices American troops are making.
And Bush should reinforce Gen. David Petraeus's promise to keep Congress apprised of the situation in Iraq by offering -- and keeping -- his own pledge to give Americans regular, honest briefings on the progress there.
That is not an ideal solution, from anyone's point of view. But something like it is probably the best compromise available that takes into account the muddled political situation our elections have created. It allows the commanders in the field to do their work and the troops to have the equipment and support they need. And it tells the Iraqis what they must do if they want us to stay and fight by their side. Beyond that, only next year's election can set our future course.