Friday, March 23, 2007

House votes for war limits - 198 Republicans oppose "funding for the troops"!

Congratualations to Nancy Pelosi and the House Democrats on getting a 218-212 majority vote for a timetable for pulling American troops out of Iraq! This is real progress: House sets deadline for troop withdrawal by Edward Epstein San Francisco Chronicle 03/23/07

I have more to say below on my own preferences for an exit plan. But even though the Senate Republicans will almost surely block such a measure from passing the Senate through use of the filibuster manuever, this is still an important move toward getting the US out of the Cheney-Bush disaster in Iraq.

The PBS Newshour on Thursday 03/22/07
presented an interview with two Congressmen on the war restrictions being debated. A prowar Republican Congressman, Eric Cantor of Virginia, was "balanced" by Democratic Congressman John Tanner of Tennessee, a part of the conservative-leaning Blue Dog Coalition who expressed his obviously reluctant support of Pelosi's antiwar proposal. Cantor stared into the camera with a fool grin frozen onto his face while he chanted the Republican Party line. Tanner couldn't be bothered to refute Cantor's repeated babbling about how the Republicans support the failed Cheney-Bush war policies in order to "support the troops".

Tanner at least managed to say in his opening comments, "Funding for the troops, in support of the troops, is never withheld under any circumstances in the bill." But just repeating the Republican slogan and trying to turn it around doesn't cut it. He also didn't make any effective response to Grinning Cantor's claim about the Pelosi proposal that "the message here is, to the enemies: We're going to cut off all taxpayer funding in '08, so all you have to do is sort of wait around until then, and rearm, and strategize about what to do." Here's the closest Tanner came to shooting down that claim:

And I think that this is a first step. And, of course, nothing's forever. If things go better, and the benchmarks are met, who knows what we can come back and visit. But, until the Iraqis understand that, every time something goes wrong, the Americans are going to be there to fight, die, and - and, as I said, we're spending $200,000 a minute in Iraq.

I'm not willing to keep on asking our taxpayers, and particularly these young military families, to do this forever.
"Nothing's forever"? Shoot, we might change our minds and come back and support extending the war indefinitely? Time and again, our "press corps" - yes, often even the "quality" press like PBS and NPR - frame the debate over the Iraq War as the difference between dedicated supporters of the Cheney-Bush disaster, on the one hand, and timid, tepid, hesitant criticism from a Democrat. Most Democratic House members and about half the Dems in the Senate in October 2002 voted against the Iraq War resolution. And many of them were saying then what a bad idea it was. It would be entirely sensible for the press to give at least as much attention to the opinions of those members of Congress who were right all along as to a reluctant war opponent like Tanner, much less to that silly Grinning Cantor.

But despite the continued weak performance of our "press corps" on the war, the public has turned strongly against it. Even fifteen years of major press dysfunction and six-plus years of Dick Cheney's Unilateral Executive approach to government haven't destroyed democratic good sense entirely.

As annoying a twit as Grinning Cantor was on that program, his argument that setting a timetable for withdrawal tells the enemy (I wonder how precisely he could define "the enemy" in Iraq) that "all you have to do is sort of wait around until then, and rearm, and strategize about what to do", deserves some careful thought, something we can scarcely expect from Iraq War supporters.

Because what we've seen in the McCain escalation that began in January in Baghdad is that Muqtada al-Sadr's JAM (Mahdi Army) has been lying low. Now, there are specific military and political goals in doing that. As long as the JAM can stay out of the Americans' crosshairs, the bulk of the American action will be against Sunni militias. Since JAM and the other Shi'a militias are carrying on a civil war and sectarian clearing operations against the Sunni, it's very much in their interest to let the Americans fight the Sunni militias for them, at least for now.

So, the JAM stand-down is not a bid for peace. Still, it's important to recognize that Muqtada and his militia made a decision to refrain from combat in Baghdad based on an a publicly-announced, phased military program by the United States, in this case, an escalation.

If the United States commits to a withdrawal deadline, all players will have to adjust their plans accordingly. It's entirely possible that they will all do what Grinning Cantor predicts - just lay low and wait until the Americans leave to continue their fighting.

But we should also ask, is that necessarily a bad thing in itself? From the viewpoint of American force protection (aka, casualty avoidance), it's a good thing. The larger risk in terms of starting a phased withdrawal of all troops would be that as the number of US troops declines, the remaining forces could be more vulnerable to attack. If all the militias refrain from attacking Americans - presumably excluding whatever international jihadists ("Al Qaida") fighters who are there, who would be unlikely to stand down - that will make the risk to American troops in withdrawing much more manageable. From the viewpoint of getting the Americans out, having the enemy militias "sort of wait around until then, and rearm, and strategize about what to do" would be the best outcome!

As George McGovern, William Polk and many other war critics have made clear, it's entirely possible and even very likely that the civil war in Iraq will intensify after an American withdrawal. The problem right now is that the American presence has become a severely exacerbating factor, encouraging the fighting by placing a foreign occupying power into the mix. It's speculative in one sense, but the available evidence strongly suggests that a continued American presence will make the eventual civil war clashes after we withdraw much more severe. Conversely, the argument that the US presence is restraining the fighting flies in the face of what we've seen as the insurgency and civil war developed over the past four years.

But there are other possibility. Let's suppose the US announces a six-month timetable for complete withdrawal. That would create powerful incentives for all the domestic groups to refrain from attacking Americans. It could lead them to restrain from much of the sectarian conflict, as well. Even if they are restraining the fighting with the intention to resume it in half a year, how is it a bad thing for them to restrain the fighting for those six months? If that were the result, that would create a block of time in which peaceful political processes would have a chance to work. It's possible,just possible, that good sense and the desire to live without constant fighting, killing and insecurity would prove strong enough to bring the parties to a practical peaceful compromise of some sort.

My own view is that we should adopt a six-month withdrawal timetable, much as McGovern and Polk discuss in Out of Iraq: A Practical Proposal for Withdrawal Now(2006) and for essentially the reasons they explain. But I don't count on it producing an immediate peaceful outcome in Iraq. The liklihood is that the civil war will intensify. I believe that it's very much in the interest of the United States to get out of that conflict as quickly as possible. And to the extent it's possible for the US to play a genuinely constructive role in Iraq in the near future, committing to and executing a full military withdrawal is the most likely way to maximize that possibility. But there's also no reason to kid ourselves. The US has made a tremendous mess in Iraq. And even in the best of circumstances, we will leave behind a tremendous mess when we leave.

Epstein's news story reports:

Fourteen Democrats joined 198 Republicans voting against the bill while one Democratic lawmaker voted "present." Two Republicans joined 216 Democrats to reach 218 votes in favor - the minimum number needed for passage. Three members failed to vote.

President Bush has said he would veto any legislation that imposes a withdrawal deadline or lays down other conditions on his powers to conduct the war as commander in chief. That sets up a possible confrontation that some congressional leaders predict could drag on until late spring, even though the Pentagon has warned that it will have to start cutting back on training for units set for deployment to Iraq in just three weeks if the new money isn't approved.

But for Pelosi and other Democratic leaders the mere House passage of the bill sent a powerful message to Bush that the new Democratic Congress will fight to end the war - and to anti-war groups that the party is listening to its strongly anti-war base. Only a handful of Republican House members voted for the bill.
And even though I hate to encourage fuzzy thinking about "funding for the troops", let's be clear that in the terms used by the war supporters, 198 Republican membersof the House just voted to oppose funding for our troops fighting in the field!

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