Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Democrats and the Iraq War

Pretty much ever since the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and the taking of American hostages in Teheran, the Democrats have felt themselves on the defensive over national security issues. The press script about how the public trusts the Republicans more on national security has often been at variance with the actual polling data. But our "press corps" knows not to let actual data get in the way of a beloved script.

The problem is that the Democrats in Congress have often acted as if the press script were the case. There are other factors at work, of course. Because, yes Virginia, there is a military-industrial complex, even though Serious People try to avoid the phrase. And the firms involved employ lots of lobbyists.

Also, for a variety of reasons, "increasing the military budget" has become political shorhand for "being tough on defense".

And to some people, escalating a war will always look "tougher" and therefore better than trying to negotiate a resonable peace. Let alone recognizing a defeat when we're experiencing one and adopting a policy to manage the consequences of that defeat.

Now, I realize that the political scene is not likely to alter so drastically as to make it politically acceptable to talk about American "defeat" in Iraq - except, of course, as a future possibility that the invincible United States must somehow avoid. But who knows? Maybe some Democrats will hit on the right way to talk about how Cheney and Bush lost the war. Because Lord knows the Republicans are trying desperately to hang the eventual recognition of that defeat around the necks of the Democrats.

I see a couple of problems for the Dems the next couple of years. Opposing the Iraq War. At this point, I suppose I should qualify this by saying opposing the Iraq War assuming it's not widened to Iran. If Cheney and Bush attack Iran, the one thing that the Dems won't have to worry about is the general public thinking Republican foreign policy is a catastrophic disaster. But I'll be optimistic in this post and assume the Iraq War stays in Iraq.

I've mentioned this before. But one thing the Dems really, really need to stop doing is validating the Republican talking point that using the appropriation power to place limits on the war in Iraq is something illegitimate or that fails to support "the troops in the field", or is interfering in "tactical" military decisions. The Constitution specifically requires Congress to exert regular budgetary control over the military and also empowers them to make regulations governing the armed forces.

This piece from the San Francisco Chronicle gives a good look at the issues, in part because it sloppily repeats some Republcian talking points:
Senate shapes its reply to Bush on Iraq: Resolution critical of war strategy divides both parties by Carolyn Lochhead 02/05/07. This, by the way, is one reason why I so often cite the title and author of news articles; Carolyn Lochhead is more likely than some other reporters to present prowar talking points without the qualifications they should have. This article is from early February, and the resolution in question was a non-binding one. We've fortunately already progressed to both the House and the Senate voting for a binding timetable for withdrawal of US combat troops from Iraq, though Bush has threatened to veto it.

The compromise anti-escalation resolution that Republican Sen. John Warner introduced and most Senate Democrats were inclined to support at the time of Lochhead's article said among other things that the Congress "should not take any action that will endanger United States military forces in the field, including the elimination or reduction of funds for troops in the field." I'm didn't trash the Dems for supporting a resolution in this round of debate that would gain significant Republican support.

The problem is that in supporting it the Dems are also validated a prowar talking point that using the appropriation power against the war would "endanger United States military forces in the field". This already has come back to bite them to some extent, though attaching antiwar provisions to the emergency military appropriations bill does put Bush in the position of opposing "funding for the troops".

The Dems need to break out of this kind of framing, and hopefully the current Pelosi amendment is a step in that direction. The image this conveys is of Congress cutting off funds cold-turkey on a single day, laying off all the soldiers in Iraq and taking their weapons and vehicles, and leaving them to fend for themselves unarmed in trying to get home. The Dems should not be buying into this comic-book framing of things. If the Democrats succeed in placing a "rider" on an appropriations bill that would, say, require the orderly withdrawal of all US troops by a certain date, that would require an *orderly withdrawal by a certain date*, not abandoning the soldiers "in the field".

Every time the Dems defend their opposition to the war by arguing, "But we're not cutting off funds for troops in the field", they reinforce the Republican talking points that are being used against them. The Dems - and this seems especially so among Senate Dems - have spent so many years playing "me-too" with Republican framings of defense-related issues that they seem to be having a hard time breaking from it. If they can't break out of it now, it's hard to imagine circumstances in which they could.

Here's how Lochhead sloppily explains the Republicans' approach:

Defenders of the president's policy are laying the groundwork for a "who lost Iraq" blame game.

"I am not accusing members of the Senate of inviting carnage on the United States of America," White House spokesman Tony Snow said Thursday, after asserting that the resolution would embolden al Qaeda terrorists.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said the resolution would "ensure failure."

"We believe that if we send the message to our troops that we support them, but not their mission, and believe they'll fail, (we'll) ensure failure," McCain said.
Snow's sleazy comment, of course, is like Marc Anthony repeatedly declaring, "Brutus is an honorable man," in his famous speech in Shakespeare's Julius Caeser when actually he's verbally trying to rip Brutus to shreds. But Marc Anthony was on far better ground than Tony Snow. Snow's comment was just cheap and sleazy. And a news report like this should find a way to point that out.

Maverick McCain's argument just quoted is pretty much as sleazy. He's saying directly that if the Senate passes an anti-escalation resolution that it will damage the morale of American soldiers in Iraq and cause them to lose battles. Lochhead is at least correct in saying this is a set-up for a future "who lost Iraq?" argument.

The Dems could make a public reality-check on such claims in a variety of ways. They could demand proof from people like McCain who are making this claim to produce evidence showing that debates in the US Senate are damaging morale of soldiers fighting in Iraq. I recall a brief moment last fall where this occurred. Rummy and Perfect Peter Pace were asked if they had encountered any morale problems among the soldiers in Iraq and both of them said they had not.

The bold Maverick McCain has actually created a rhetorical box for himself of this that the Dems should exploit. Serving officers are going to be very reticent to talk publicly about morale problems, even if they are serious, especially relating to units under their command. Likewise, neither Maverick McCain or any other war supporter is going to point to Unit X and say, "This unit is suffering severe morale problems that is damaging their fighting readiness". For one thing, the officers in charge would inevitably deny it. And it would make them sound like they were not criticizing "the troops" after aggressive posturing as having the interests of "the troops" always first in their priorities.

And any serious study or Congressional hearing about morale would find that morale in individual units are primarily determined by unit cohesion and the factors that immediately and directly affect it. An early end to the Iraq War would deprive some generals of their chance to rack up some combat command time that would be invaluable for their future careers. But are the grunts fighting insurgents in Al-Anbar province eager to stay there for years and years more? Please.

The whole idea reminds me of something John Steinbeck wrote in an introduction to a collection of his war reporting from the Second World War. He said that one of the favorite stock stories of the time were about the general back in headquarters who longed to be out there at the front with his boys. Steinbeck said, you know, some of the privates and corporals might not be the smartest guys one might encounter. But he said he never met one dumb enough to buy that story!

And, in particular, the Dems also need to blow a hole in the argument that passing troops ceilings or other kinds of restrictions constitutes "tactical" interference, an idea the war fans are pushing hard. From Lochhead, here's the great Maverick's version:

For McCain, the [anti-escalation] resolution entails "a degree of micromanagement which is absolutely Orwellian. That alone should cause us to reject this kind of foolishness."
Now, I'm not really sure what it means even to say that "a degree of micromanagement" is "Orwellian", absolutely or otherwise. Normally "Orwellian" is used to refer to a situation where something is labeled euphemistically as the opposite of what it is. So the Maverick's statement doesn't exactly make sense.

But the word "micromanagement" is presumably what he wanted to get across. Demanding a cap on the number of troops is a broad limitation placed at the "strategic" level. The "tactical" level of operations - the only conceivable meaningful way "micromanagement" could be used in this context - is more on the level of, "We'll approach the target neighborhood north along Street X, then two blocks before the target we'll turn left onto Street Y for one block, then turn back right onto Street Z." Congress is not going to try to regulate anything at that level in the war, nor are any members even discussing such a thing.

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