Lincoln's Example for Iraq

Staff Sgt. Michael Mullahy, of Batavia, Ill., fires a rocket at an insurgent position in Baghdad on Saturday.
Staff Sgt. Michael Mullahy, of Batavia, Ill., fires a rocket at an insurgent position in Baghdad on Saturday. (By Sgt. Michael Pryor, U.s. Army, Via Associated Press)

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By Carl Levin
Thursday, June 21, 2007

In his only term in Congress, Abraham Lincoln was an ardent opponent of the Mexican War. He introduced a series of resolutions that challenged President James Polk to show the "spot" of American soil on which Mexicans had spilled American blood, and he voted for an amendment stating that the war was "unnecessarily and unconstitutionally begun by the President."

But when the question of funding for the troops fighting that war came, Lincoln voted their supplies without hesitation.

Sound familiar? President Bush recently vetoed a bill I helped draft because it would have required him to begin reducing U.S. force levels in Iraq within four months. In the wake of that veto, calls from those who want Congress to try to stop funding the war have grown louder.

Today, some of us are facing the same dilemma that Lincoln faced: Do you fund the troops fighting a war that you oppose?

I voted against going to war in Iraq; I have consistently challenged the administration's conduct of the war; and I have long fought to change our policy there. But I cannot vote to stop funding the troops while they are in harm's way, conducting dangerous missions such as those recently begun north of Baghdad. I agree with Lincoln, who decided "that the Administration had done wrong in getting us into the war, but that the Officers and soldiers who went to the field must be supplied and sustained at all events." As long as our nation's policies put them there, our troops should hear an unequivocal message from Congress that we support them.

That shouldn't be a cause for frustration among those of us who want to bring the war to a prompt and responsible end.

There are a number of ways for Congress to try to change course in Iraq. I emphasize "try" because Democrats can't succeed without Republican support, given the realities of Senate procedure. One way to try to change course is to stop funding for the war, which sends the wrong message to the troops and won't pass in Congress. The better way to change course, an option that is also more likely to succeed, is to place in law a requirement that the president do so.

We can end the war without stopping funding for the troops. For more than a year, I, along with Sen. Jack Reed, have introduced legislation requiring the president to begin reducing the number of American troops in Iraq within four months while transitioning our military mission there to limited force protection, training of Iraqi security forces and counterterrorism missions.

Setting a date to begin reducing and transitioning our forces would make clear to Iraqi leaders that we will not be their security blanket indefinitely. It would force them to take responsibility for their future and to make the political compromises that only they can make. It would also give them sufficient time to make those compromises. After all, they promised to make nearly all of them by the end of last year and the rest by the beginning of this year but have yet to do so. The timeline would also allow us to plan for redeploying our forces.

By setting a policy that begins with putting into law a timetable for starting a troop reduction, rather than trying to stop funding, we offer the best chance for stabilizing a country that we invaded while also sending the message to our troops that, even though we oppose the president's policy, we are united behind them.

Support for our approach has grown steadily. In June 2006, our measure received 39 votes. In March, it received 48 votes. In April, it received 51 votes, including those of two Republican senators. By contrast, only 29 senators so far -- none of them Republican -- have voted for a funding cutoff. That's a long way from the 60 votes needed to end a filibuster or the 67 needed to override a veto.

Sen. Reed and I will introduce this plan again as an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Bill. As previous efforts did, this amendment will require a reduction to begin within 120 days, but this amendment will also provide that all troops be out of Iraq by April 1, 2008, except for the forces needed for specified, limited missions to which they would transition.

Democrats, and I hope a growing number of Republicans, will keep fighting for this approach until either the president signs it or we override his veto. Until that day, we will continue to fund the troops, following the example so wisely set by Abraham Lincoln 160 years ago.

The writer is a Democratic senator from Michigan.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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