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The Beginning Of The End Of The Iraq War [Part 2]

[ Posted Thursday, June 21st, 2007 – 00:02 UTC ]

Part 2 -- Democratic Tactical Choices

[This article is in three parts. Part 1 ran yesterday and dealt with the Republicans' increasing signals that they're ready to desert Bush en masse come September. Part 3 will run tomorrow, and deal with the politics involved in creating a bipartisan end to the war.]


General Petraeus, the officer in charge of our military presence in Iraq, is scheduled to report to Congress in mid-September on how the surge is doing. After he does so, Democrats are going to find themselves holding a winning hand for ending the war in Iraq -- as more and more Republicans start voting with them. But how they play their cards is going to be important in determining exactly how the war should be ended, how fast it will happen, and how many troops will be left in Iraq.

Now, there are many ideas on how to end the war from the Democratic side, and in September the party is going to have to hammer out a strategy for how to proceed -- and they'll need both a detailed strategy for the military withdrawal, and also a legislative strategy for how exactly to go about enacting the end of the war.

Congressional vagaries and loopholes mean there are countless ways the Democrats could manage to end the war in September. There is simply no way to cover every contingency here, or even predict exactly which path such legislation could take. Having said that, there are several tactics which are currently being discussed among Democratic leaders. Here are the major options as I see them now:


(1)  Timelines

Set explicit timelines for U.S. troops to be withdrawn. On date (A), the withdrawal starts. On date (B), half of the troops need to be out. One date (C), all troops have to be out, with the exception of (D) amount of soldiers, who will remain. All of these details need to be worked out by the Democrats before the bill is written, and (D) will be the most contentious -- from a minimum of "only enough Marines to guard the embassy," up to a maximum of "forward operating bases with this many (whatever number is agreed upon) troops left to fight terrorism in Iraq." That's a pretty wide margin, so some sort of consensus will need to be hammered out before the bill is drawn up.


(2)  Milestones

Set explicit milestones and deadlines for the Iraqi government to reach. If the milestones are not met on time, U.S. troops begin withdrawal. This would be almost guaranteed, since the Maliki government has as yet shown no signs of actual, you know, governing.


(3)  Implement the Baker/Hamilton Iraq Survey Group (ISG) report

The Republicans are actually already making noises that they could accept this. Fully implement the ISG report's recommendations, pull back American troops from combat, and concentrate on training the Iraqi troops. The problem with this option may be that it's too little, too late. It might have worked last year, but this year Democrats -- and the public -- want a faster end to the war than the ISG's plan provides.


(4)  Repeal the Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF)

This is the most powerful tool the Democrats have. The only drawback is it could wind up (for a lengthy period) in the courts.

The AUMF was the original law passed whereby Congress authorized Bush to go to war against Iraq. But the AUMF's stated aims have now been met: remove Saddam from power, and find the non-existent WMDs. Because these objectives have been met (the argument goes) Congress should repeal the original AUMF, and then pass another one. The new one would only give Bush authority (and money) to get the troops out. This would be the entire "mission statement" -- get our troops out of Iraq in "X" amount of time.

This one is a very tempting option, as it directly undermines the legal authority the President has to wage war. However, it is based on the 1973 War Powers Act, which has never adequately been tested in the courts. Presidents (since the law was passed) have mostly obeyed the provisions of the law, but they've all (from both parties) done so while protesting that the law itself is an unconstitutional usurpation of executive power. If Bush decides he's not bound by any AUMF (which is entirely possible, given his sweeping "unitary executive" view of presidential powers to wage war), then we're all headed to the Supreme Court. In other words, this is a very powerful option to consider, but even if passed, it may take longer than expected to end the war.

The truly powerful section of the law is that if the original AUMF is repealed, Bush doesn't get to veto the troop's removal -- because it's passed by a concurrent resolution, which does not require the president's signature to be enacted. Here's the relevant text from the law itself:

Sec. 5 (c) Notwithstanding subsection (b), at any time that United States Armed Forces are engaged in hostilities outside the territory of the United States, its possessions and territories without a declaration of war or specific statutory authorization, such forces shall be removed by the President if the Congress so directs by concurrent resolution.


(5)  Pass Murtha's troop readiness standards

Not a very effective tool to actually end the war, but a good idea nonetheless, and it would probably force Republicans into supporting it overwhelmingly. This would tie the Pentagon's hands by forcing them to only field soldiers who are "properly trained, equipped, and rested." Two versions of this bill exist, one which flat out does not allow deploying soldiers who aren't ready, and one with a "waiver" the president can sign (in effect stating: "the troops aren't ready, but I'm sending them off to war anyway").

The idea originated with Representative Jack Murtha, and it makes sense politically. To vote against it, you are voting "not to support the troops," which nicely paints Republicans into a corner in an election season. But it would take time for the effects of the bill to be felt. And if it passed with the loophole intact, Bush could just sign the waivers, and the war would drag on. So it's a good incremental step for Democrats to consider to "soften up" the Republicans on the issue, but it shouldn't be seen as the end-all, be-all way to end the war.


(6)  Cut the purse strings off

There's a whole spectrum of how to do this, from: "You're not getting one more thin dime," up to: "We'll provide funding, but when other triggers happen (as in options (1) and (2), above), then the troops must come home."

If the Democrats choose this option, they'll have to be careful. There are two political pitfalls in doing so, which Republicans have already successfully used against them (in the spring, when the emergency bill was being debated). The first pitfall is: "You're Not Funding the Troops in the Field, Who Are in Harm's Way!!" (the capital letters are heard every time a politician says this, so I included them). The second is the ticking clock -- whatever budget the war and the Pentagon are on, it will run out at some point. If Congress doesn't pass a law before that point, then the money stops... and Republicans start echoing the refrain from the first pitfall.

Whether the Iraq war ends up getting funded in the Pentagon's annual budget or by another emergency appropriation (more on this tomorrow), there is an "out" the Democrats can take to avoid both these pitfalls: pass a continuing temporary budget (if a deadline approaches) for, say, one month. This gives Congress some elbow room to hold its debate, but it may not go over very well with the public. Because of this, it should only be used as a last resort, while pointing out as often as possible that it's only necessary because the Republicans are being obstructionists.

While the anti-war wing of the Democratic party (and the anti-war public at large) will push hard to just cut off all the money immediately, what will actually emerge will likely be less of an either/or dichotomy. Republicans have been taunting Democrats for months now, by saying: "You're in power -- if you want to end the war, be intellectually honest and just cut off all the funds." This taunt may come back to haunt them this fall, as Democrats will use this position as a starting point in their negotiations.

But you can't stop the Titanic on a dime, and you can't end a war just by cutting off all money, starting tomorrow. So here are two reasonable plans to achieve the objective (ending the war) without being seen as recklessly endangering the troops (there are admittedly other options on how to do this, but these seem to be the strongest two):

(6a)  Force the Pentagon to draw up a withdrawal plan, then fund only that plan

Tell the Pentagon to submit an operational plan, complete with budget numbers, for an orderly withdrawal of troops from Iraq. Give the Pentagon one month to do so. As in option (1) above, the number of troops allowed to remain will have to be explicitly defined to the Pentagon before it begins its report. Also predefined must be a schedule of how long this will reasonably take (3 months, 6 months, whatever). When the Pentagon presents their plan, fund it. But cut off all other Iraq money, and fund only the withdrawal.

This destroys the argument "You're not supporting the troops," since the Pentagon will be the one making the recommendations, and the withdrawal itself will be orderly, safe, and fully funded.

This should be seen as one of the strongest options to gain political support from a majority of Americans, and from Republicans in Congress. It's an easy argument to make: Support the troops -- bring them home.

(6b)  Pass "X" amount of money, and tell Bush that's all he's going to get

Congress prepares its own estimate of how much money it will take to withdraw the troops in a reasonable amount of time. It then passes a budget for that amount of money, and tells President Bush: "That's all the money you're going to ever get for Iraq. We passed this money for you to get the troops out. If there are any troops left after the time period given, and they have no money, it's because you have put them in harm's way without support. And we intend to make that crystal clear to the American public. So do the right thing, and bring the troops home."

This may sound tempting, but it relies too heavily on trusting Bush to do the right thing. Betting on Bush doing the right thing is not exactly a safe bet. So while it looks reasonable on the face of it (and probably would be reasonable if we had a reasonable president), it may backfire.


Now, it's debatable which item on the list above would be the best way to force George W. Bush to get American troops out of Iraq. Please feel free to post your comments on the choices, or perhaps suggest other tactics which I have not addressed here. But the common thread running through all of these ideas is that whatever gets decided -- whichever tactic the Democrats ultimately choose -- there's a real good chance they can hold their party caucus together when it comes to voting on it in both houses. This will present the Republicans with a unified political front. What the Republicans will do when faced with such a strong showing is a subject that will be addressed tomorrow, in the conclusion to this article.


[Sorry for the abrupt ending, but this article is just too massively long as it is. What I will examine tomorrow is how each of these tactics will appeal to wavering congressional Republicans, who may need to be coaxed across the aisle. I will also give an overview of some strategic (as opposed to tactical) political questions which remain for Democrats, and my conclusions.]


Cross-posted at The Huffington Post


One Comment on “The Beginning Of The End Of The Iraq War [Part 2]”

  1. [1] 
    fstanley wrote:

    Hi Chris,

    The Dems need to keep pushing for an end to the war and I think they need to remind the public that President Bush is not looking out for their interests. Republican voters need to remind their Reps & Senators that Congress has a job to do and needs to check President Bush's many abuses of executive power. Government should be transparent.


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