Thursday, February 01, 2007

Anti-Bush Iraq Consensus: Key Questions

You could almost hear the whirring of emails flying around on Capitol Hill and in the blogosphere after the news this morning that Carl Levin, Joe Biden, and most importantly Harry Reid had signed onto a revised version of John Warner's non-binding resolution opposing the Bush escalation plan for Iraq. " Sources" indicated that Reid would make the Warner resolution the centerpiece of the planned Senate debate on Iraq next week, in an effort to get a filibuster-proof 60-plus votes for a repudiation of Bush's plan. And the same story provided a somewhat confused report that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had instructed staff to come up with an identical version of the Warner resolution, and/or that she was aiming at something quite different.

Adding to the confusion were reports that the Warner resolution would foreswear any effort to cut off funding for troops in Iraq; since the language hasn't been publicly released, it's not clear at all what that means. (No effort to cut or condition troop funding at all? No effort to cut funding for new troops? No effort to deny supplemental funding for an escalated troop level later on? Who knows?).

While the early stories on the Warner resolution emphasize the difficulty of getting sufficient Republicans on board, it's equally clear that some more aggressively antiwar Democrats might throw sand into the works. And indeed, Sen. Chris Dodd, a presidential candidate, has already announced his opposition.

Meanwhile, as of this writing, there's a bit of an eerie silence on the latest maneuver in the progressive blogosphere. Scanning some of the big sites, I saw one post at DailyKos that rather tentatively worries that congressional Dems are caving. Everywhere else, folks seem to be holding their powder or waiting for details.

I hope this means there's at least some agreement that a maximum congressional repudiation of the Bush escalation plan, so long as it does not completely foreclose additional steps if Bush continues to stubbornly plug ahead with an approach almost nobody thinks can work, has some real political value. As I guess we all know, the Pentagon already has sufficient existing funds to do what Bush wants it to do. And as Matt Yglesias pointed out earlier today, the real opportunity to restrict or condition funding will occur a few months down the road, when Bush has to come back to Congress and request new money.

But there is another, and perhaps more fundamental, question raised by the Warner resolution, and by a host of other proposals. According to the Post:

The Warner and Biden resolutions reach almost identical conclusions, in that they oppose the president's deployment of 21,500 additional troops and call for existing troops to be reassigned to guard Iraq's borders, combat terrorism and train Iraqi security forces. Both measures call for regional diplomacy to draw Iraq's neighbors into a peace process.

Note the "reassignment" language. This basically means rejecting the idea of any continued combat role for U.S. troops, especially in places like Baghdad. That's also what the Iraq Study Group called for. And it's hard to avoid the implication that this "reassignment," or "redeployment" if you prefer, would make immediate and substantial troop withdrawals not only possible but necessary, right?

I draw attention to this rather simple point because so many commentators have made troop levels and withdrawal deadlines the key dividing issue on Iraq, especially among Democrats. Yet at least some of the "deadline" proposals, most notably Barack Obama's latest plan, only talk about a deadline for withdrawing combat brigades, and explicitly provides for an apparently indefinite deployment of an undefined number of other troops. Since Obama's (and for that matter, the Kerry-Feingold resolution that was supposed to be the toughest get-out-soon approach) plan explicitly talks about maintaining "counter-terrorism" operations within Iraq, I assume "non-combat troops" includes special ops units.

This matters, of course, because if supporters of the Warner resolution are calling for a change of mission that means "withdraw combat troops," then maybe the allegedly vast gulf among Democrats and even some Republicans on Iraq isn't as vast as it seems.

There are plenty of Democrats, in Congress, and on the blogs, and plenty of Americans, who literally think we should get every single U.S. soldier and marine out of Iraq almost immediately, including special ops forces and training personnel. But the real issues aren't often resolved by the obsession with "deadlines." The real choices aren't necessarily "escalate," "stay the course," or "out now." And even if you are in the "out now" camp, it's not quite honest to say that proposals that would mean withdrawal of combat forces and elimination of any U.S. intention to "resolve" the civil war or control the country are just "status quo" approaches. And moreover, since public opinion is clearly demanding a change of course, it's undeniable that the polls are not offering Americans anything like the full range of options on the table in Washington (How, for example, would you fit Obama's proposal into the "more troops, same troops, or withdraw all troops?" questions typically posed?).

Speaking of public opinion, a number of bloggers, in pressing congressional Dems to move forward quickly with a funding cutoff for the war, keep citing poll numbers indicating that 64% of Americans don't think Congress has been sufficiently assertive in challenging Bush on the war. This is from a recent Newsweek poll, and the exact wording begins, "Since the Iraq war began...." Based on a question that clearly asks respondents to think back for nearly four years, I don't think this finding can be credibly used to suggest that Americans have already decided the new Democratic Congress is being too timid.

UPDATE: Well, the Silence of the Blogs on the Warner resolution has ended, apparently led by Sen. Russ Feingold's description of the resolution as an endorsement of every aspect of Bush's strategy other than the escalation plan. Markos weighs in with a blast at Harry Reid. My buddy Armando at TalkLeft hammers me and Matt Yglesias for simply suggesting that Dems shouldn't reject the Warner resolution out of hand, and goes on to say we're once again exhibiting the fatal timidity that led us to support the war resolution back in 2002, etc., etc. (Don't know how Armando knows that about me, since I wasn't blogging back then, and since there was actually internal dissent on Iraq at the DLC, but that's a subject for a different post on a different day, if anyone actually cares what I thought in 2002).

Armando's jeremiad is a bit off-target, since as I noted above, I hadn't gotten hold of the actual language of the Warner resolution, and also didn't know exactly what Harry Reid's strategy entailed. Having now read the resolution, I can't quite agree with Feingold that it represents an endorsement of the status quo, since it pretty clearly says we should get out of operations in Baghdad, which we are in currently, even without the surge. But I see his point that it doesn't very clearly articulate a completely new mission that will involve withdrawal of most if not all conventional combat troops, and the language on funding "for the troops in the field," ambiguous as it is, will undoubtedly be quoted back to Democrats if they move in the direction of action on funding in the future.

But the basic political reality is that none of this much matters if the Warner resolution winds up attracting only a few Republicans and if a significant number of Democrats oppose it, as now appears likely. Then it really does become a pointless exercise, and Dems might as well go back to embracing something like the Biden-Hagel resolution (which Feingold supported), which will probably get as many votes as the Warner resolution would. I don't understand why Reid signed onto Warner's resolution without making sure he could bring just about every Democrat along, but it's not looking like a smooth move today.
-- Posted at 5:05 PM | Link to this post | Email this post

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