The Troop Funding Trap

By Michael Kinsley
Saturday, June 2, 2007

What are you supposed to do, according to supporters of the Iraq war, if you think that the war is a dreadful mistake? Suppose you are a member of Congress, elected by constituents who also, like most Americans, according to opinion polls, oppose the war. Is there any legitimate action you can take? Or must you simply allow the war to go on and let young Americans die in what you regard as a bad cause? What are your options?

The Constitution says, "The Congress shall have the Power . . . to declare War." That power does not mean much unless it includes the power not to declare war as well. But presidents from both parties have pretty much stolen Congress's war power, with the ordinarily "strict constructionist" Republicans taking the lead. Congress has stood by and not done much -- but what could it do? As Stalin supposedly said about military advice from the Vatican, "The Pope! How many divisions has he got?"

Last week President Bush condescended to sign a bill authorizing $100 billion for his war, but only after any serious timetables or criteria or deadlines for troop withdrawal were stripped from the legislation. There was a time, circa 1999, when Republicans considered it the height of naivete, irresponsibility and indifference to the fate of American soldiers to commit any troops to action in a foreign country without what used to be called an "exit strategy." That was when the president was a Democrat. Now it is considered the height of naivete, irresponsibility and indifference to the fate of American soldiers to suggest the possibility of any exit strategy short of triumph. If you do, you are betraying the troops. And no one sees actual triumph in the cards, so there is no exit strategy.

And woe betide any politician who suggests that waiting for complete triumph might not be the only alternative -- just in case democracy, prosperity, peace and brotherhood don't flower in Iraq next week. Sens . Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama opposed the war-funding bill because it lacked even the mealy-mouthed timetables in an earlier version that Bush vetoed.

For this they got crocodile tears from Sen. John McCain. Squandering a bit more of his war-hero capital, McCain came close to accusing the two leading Democratic presidential candidates of treason: "I was very disappointed to see Senator Obama and Senator Clinton embrace the policy of surrender." Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, with no known foreign policy expertise or even interest (unless you count his "mission" to France after college, trying to convert the French to Mormonism), attributed Clinton's and Obama's votes to "an inexperienced worldview on national security."

A confused Wall Street Journal editorial last week seemed to be addressing this question of how an elected representative might legitimately oppose a war in our democracy. It began by accusing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of cowardice. They "claim to oppose the war and want it to end, yet they refused to use their power of the purse to end it."

So there is a "power of the purse," you see. Congress can cut off funds for a war that people don't like. In this connection, older readers might recall the Iran-contra affair, in which sources of money were found to keep the contra war going in Nicaragua without Congress's even knowing about it. This met with the enthusiastic approval of the Wall Street Journal, even though funds you do not know about are hard to cut off.

But what happens if you, as a member of Congress, do attempt to use the power of the purse? Sens. Clinton, Obama and Chris Dodd (also running for president) voted against the final Iraq funding bill because all meaningful deadlines and timetables had been stripped out so that President Bush would sign it. That Wall Street Journal editorial accuses these three Democratic senators of "vot[ing] to undermine U.S. troops in the middle of a difficult mission." If this is true of last week's vote, it will always be true of any attempt to cut off a war by cutting off funds. Unless the Journal is in favor of undermining U.S. troops, this makes the alleged "power of the purse" unusable.

Advocates of the current war who enjoy the spectacle of war opponents caught in this trap of laws and logic had better hope that every military action a president chooses to engage in from here on out is as wonderful to them as is the war in Iraq. Because there is nothing war-specific about this line of argument. It would work just as well on an invasion of Canada or an aerial bombardment of Portugal. The president can do it if he wants to, and no one can legitimately stop him.

Of course, the president is elected, and in that sense he is acting as proxy for the citizens when he decides to take our country into a war. Right? Well, not quite. Let's leave aside the voting anomalies of the 2000 election. When this president first ran for national office, he campaigned on a platform of criticizing his predecessor for engaging in military action (in Kosovo and Somalia) without an exit strategy. He mocked the notion of trying to establish democracy in distant lands. He denounced the use of American soldiers for "nation-building." In 2000, if you were looking for a way to express your disapproval of the policies and prejudices that later got us into Iraq, your obvious answer would have been to vote for George W. Bush.

Check and mate.

Michael Kinsley is a columnist for Time magazine.

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