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"Shock but No Awe" by Erik Leaver

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  • Timothy Baer
    Shock but No Awe by Erik Leaver | April 13, 2007 Editor: Emily Schwartz Greco, IPS Foreign Policy In Focus http://www.fpif.org
    Message 1 of 1 , Apr 28, 2007
      Shock but No Awe

      by Erik Leaver | April 13, 2007
      Editor: Emily Schwartz Greco, IPS

      Foreign Policy In Focus http://www.fpif.org



      As the Iraq War and U.S. occupation began their fifth year on March 19, few
      Americans were paying attention to what was going on in Iraq. Instead the
      nation�s eyes were riveted on the halls of Congress as the Democrats waged a
      battle to pass a bill setting a timetable for the withdrawal of combat

      The bill was a political victory for the country and indeed the globe. For
      the first time in more than four years of war, the debate moved from the
      question of if the U.S. should leave to when the U.S. should leave.

      But the devil is in the details. Upon closer inspection, the politics might
      be right but the actual policy within the bill is a far cry from what both
      Iraqis and the U.S. public wants.

      And while the debate lingers as the President has vowed to veto the bill and
      Congress ponders the next steps, Bush�s �surge� continues, bringing 30,000
      more U.S. soldiers to Baghdad while the violence continues and soldiers and
      innocent civilians perish.

      A Democratic Congress: An Opportunity for Change?
      The 2006 Elections

      The mandate from the 2006 mid-term elections has widely been interpreted as
      a mandate for changing U.S. policy toward Iraq. But the shift in campaign
      rhetoric around Iraq wasn�t a central Democratic strategy. Indeed, it was
      Ned Lamont�s successful primary challenge to Senator Joe Lieberman (D-CT)
      that moved the debate. Until Lamont succeeded in his primary bid based
      around the central message of bringing the troops home, Democrats were
      taking the trajectory of simply criticizing the President�s conduct of the
      war. Lamont changed that dynamic, forcing candidates across the country to
      define their position on troop withdrawals.

      Putting the Iraq issue front and center in the campaigns, Democrats took
      narrow majorities in the House and much to the surprise of pundits (and the
      party itself) the Senate.

      January 2007: Democrats Take Charge

      While Democrats came to power their narrow majorities injected caution into
      the Party who (like the Republican Party) is more concerned about holding
      office than implementing sound policy. The election also resulted in a wider
      divide of values across the party. �Anybody but Bush� voters elected many
      Democrats in traditional Republican strongholds while progressives were able
      to gain ground with their �Bring home the troops message� in solid blue
      states. Both poles of the Party (left and right) became stronger making it
      more difficult to forge consensus. Hence, it was not surprising that the
      first seven legislative issues for the Democratic congress did not include

      However, Iraq quickly moved on to the agenda with Bush�s announcement on
      January 10, 2007 that he would send an additional 20,000 troops to Baghdad
      in a �surge� aimed at quelling the violence. Bush also sent Congress two
      spending requests for the war: $93 billion for the rest of the 2007 fiscal
      year and $140 billion for the 2008 fiscal year. Democrats jumped on Bush�s
      announcement and shortly began debating resolutions opposing the escalation
      and started a flurry of hearings on Iraq in virtually every congressional

      But momentum for change stalled as the Senate failed to pass a resolution
      opposing the escalation. And fearful of being labeled �weak on defense�,
      Democratic leadership penned talking points underscoring that they would not
      cut off funds to troops in the field. It became unclear how or even if the
      Democrats would challenge the President�s funding request.

      The Rubber Hits the Road: The War Supplemental

      Bush officially asked Congress for $93 billion on February 5, 2007 for the
      remainder of fiscal year 2007. These funds were on top of the $70 billion
      Congress approved last year for fiscal year 2007, bringing the year�s total
      to $163 billion. With the nation largely opposed to Bush�s escalation and in
      favor of a timeline for withdrawal, the debate around the spending bill
      should not have become about the money, it should have focused on the

      Instead of directly challenging Bush on his funding request, some Democrats
      sought to dodge responsibility altogether. Presidential hopeful, Joe Biden,
      questioned whether Congress had the legitimate constitutional authority to
      defund a military action against the President's wishes. Ironically it was
      Bush�s latest Supreme Court nominee, Justice Alito, who stated to Senator
      Biden during his confirmation hearing "(t)he constitution... gives Congress
      the power of the purse, and obviously military operations can�t be carried
      out for any length of time without Congressional appropriations."

      Seeing weakness from the Democrats, Conservatives such as Senator Lindsey
      Graham (R-SC) openly challenged Democrats to pass a bill opposing the
      president, "If you think supporting the troops is bringing them home, then
      why not pass a bill that does that?" In asking this question, Graham aptly
      pointed out the Democrats main weakness�the lack of consensus within the
      Democratic Party on what an alternative Iraq policy should look like.

      Fumbling for a Strategy: Murtha

      All eyes focused on the office of Rep. Jack Murtha (D-PA), the architect of
      the spending bill that would reach the House floor. A long time critic of
      the war, and author of a bill calling for an immediate redeployment of the
      troops, many expected Murtha to write a bill that would effectively end the
      war and present a clear strategy for the Democrats.

      But instead of taking Graham�s challenge head on, Murtha sought to stop the
      war through slight-of-hand maneuvers such as holding back troops that were
      not combat ready, ending stop-loss policies, and cutting funds for military
      contractors. While cleverly putting Democrats on the side of the troops,
      Murtha�s strategy didn�t adequately engage other members of congress,
      resulting in severe backlash from more conservative Democrats. His strategy,
      though not the policy, was also openly attacked by Republicans. And Murtha
      lacked popular support as his back door maneuvering removed public opinion
      and the grassroots from the debate. The Democratic leadership, slow to
      devise an initial strategy, quickly moved in to take control over the
      process in an attempt to resuscitate the bill.

      A Weak Foundation: Pelosi�s Compromise

      Congressional analysts were quick to point out that the funding bill became
      House Speaker Nancy Pelosi�s first major challenge. Many argued that if she
      failed to pass a bill, it would show great weakness in the Democratic
      leadership. Democrats rose to answer this conservative framing instead of
      putting the pressure back on the President who was driving the country in
      the exact opposite direction than the voters expressed. Instead of asking
      the question if the country should pony up an additional $93 billion for
      war, the question became, can Pelosi (D-CA) pass a bill?

      With a diversity of opinion within the Democratic Caucus, the focus became
      on what compromise could be hashed out between the conservative Blue Dogs
      and Progressives. There was never a fight about the overarching Iraq policy.
      Instead, the biggest brawl the public saw was between House Appropriations
      committee Chairman David Obey (D-WI) and the mother of a Marine and an
      anti-war activist, Tina Richards. Responding from Richard�s plea to stop the
      war Obey screamed, �We don�t have the votes.� But it was never clear that
      Obey and others were in fact seeking the votes to end the war. Instead they
      were seeking the votes for what ended up being a weak compromise.

      The Result: A Political Victory but Bad Policy

      With narrow majorities the House and Senate both passed the emergency
      spending bills. Headlines across the nation portrayed the bills as major
      challenges to the White House, setting deadlines for the withdrawal of
      combat troops. However, little attention was paid to the actual content of
      the bills.

      A Bad Policy

      Much attention has been paid to the waivers granted to the President in the
      bills to allow non-combat troops to be sent into battle. But the larger
      policy question, that of withdrawals, has largely been overlooked. The
      withdrawal of �combat troops� is not well-defined in the legislation,
      potentially leaving 40-60,000 troops in Iraq when the March or August 2008
      deadlines arrive (March is the Senate deadline and August is the House
      deadline). Both versions authorize three main categories of troops that can

      Trainers: Current levels are approximately 6,000. But the Iraq Study Group
      recommended 10,000-20,000. Potentially the President could use the ISG

      Counter-terrorist forces: Marine Colonel Peter Devlin, stationed in Ramadi,
      Iraq, wrote a detailed and recently updated classified memo in August 2006
      on the situation in al-Anbar province, �State of the Insurgency in
      Al-Anbar.� He concluded that an additional division (15,000�20,000 troops)
      would be required to defeat the terrorists. The bill only provides for
      forces to attack al-Qaida but the definition of terrorists could easily be
      expanded by the President.

      Protection for Embassy/Diplomats: The intent in the language is unclear but
      at a minimum this would mean leaving protection for the Embassy in the Green
      Zone. It would likely include leaving protection for the Baghdad airport and
      the road between the airport and Green Zone. A larger troop presence could
      be larger if they are protecting outlying areas where the provincial
      reconstruction teams are located. Force protection for these scenarios could
      range between 5,000-20,000. None of these projections include estimates for
      the number of military contractors that would be in support of the
      operations. The bill language does not have any restrictions on contractors
      who currently number between 75,000-150,000.

      The bills are also weak on providing measures that are needed in tandem with
      a drawdown. The bills make economic aid dependent on the performance of the
      Iraqi government. Tying the aid in this manner presents a similar dynamic to
      the sanctions era, where the population was punished for the actions of the
      Iraqi leadership. More importantly, cutting aid deprives the population that
      the U.S. needs support from to reduce their tendency to engage in
      terrorist/insurgency activities.

      To be sure, there is some good language on regional diplomacy, veterans
      health care, and active duty health care but overall these measures are a
      weak band-aid for a bill that will continue the U.S. military presence &
      occupation and generate the same problems for years to come.

      The policies outlined in the bill largely follow the bipartisan Iraq Study
      Group�s (ISG) recommendations from their November 2006 report. But the ISG
      recommendations were aimed at bridging a political impasse between the
      President and the public, i.e. they were aimed at providing the political
      cover needed for the President to change his policy�not for putting forward
      the best possible policy. And with Bush standing steadfast against even the
      modest ISG reforms, lawmakers should be pressing for the best policy.

      The Impact on the Anti-War Movement

      While the change in tenor on Iraq was a great success for the anti-war
      movement, the supplemental debate caused a serious dilemma within the
      movement. The vote forced organizations to pick supporting politics vs.
      opposing a bad policy.

      David Sirota, co-chairman of the Progressive States Network, argued in favor
      of the bill, anticipating that if the bill failed, that �House Democratic
      leaders would have come back to write a "clean" supplemental bill--one that
      funds the war but does not include the binding legislation to end it.� He
      concluded, �As long as binding language ending the war was in these bills,
      voting �yes� was clearly the way to bring the country closer to achieving
      the anti-war movement's goal.�

      Criticizing those in the movement who supported the bill, historian Howard
      Zinn wrote, �When a social movement adopts the compromises of legislators,
      it has forgotten its role, which is to push and challenge the politicians,
      not to fall in meekly behind them.�

      But Zinn likely overlooked the lobbying efforts many groups have undertaken
      for the last four years. Grassroots have continuously challenged those in
      Congress and in doing so, gave progressives in Congress a much stronger hand
      in the negotiations around the spending bill. Public opinion, while widely
      against the conduct of the war is not for the immediate withdrawal that the
      anti-war movement wants. And Sirota missed the huge loopholes that exist in
      the bill, allowing the war to continue even after the �deadlines� are met.

      Oddly enough, neither side in this debate seems to understand the value in
      the other, nor how the outcome actually increased the strength of the
      anti-war movement. Passage of a bill that calls for bringing many of the
      troops home in an 18-month timeframe is a victory given the narrow
      Democratic majorities in Congress and with a President who has vowed to stay
      in Iraq even if his only supporters are his wife and his dog.

      Given these challenges, a victory was achieved but it has to be seen as part
      of a larger strategy over the course of this year where there are votes on
      the Defense Authorization bill, and Defense Appropriations bill, along with
      another supplemental. By pointing out the large deficiencies in the bill, it
      provides leverage for future concessions and a way to end the war sooner.

      The Aftermath: What Next
      Shortly after the bill passed, the President held a news conference
      announcing that he would veto the bill. This news conference was followed by
      two weeks of veto threats from the White House along with an invitation for
      Democrats to visit Bush for a lecture on why they should support his
      escalation and never ending war in Iraq. With this showdown looming many are
      asking what the next steps will be.


      Overriding a veto is impossible given the close passage in both chambers of
      Congress. And failing to pass any bill, effectively cutting the funds off
      isn�t politically feasible given that the Democrats fell prey to the White
      House�s framing of funding as the only way to �support the troops.� Assuming
      that the House and Senate will pass the compromise report reconciling the
      two different versions of the bill the following options exist for the next

      1) A Worse Bill: A new bill that would keep the same conditions and waivers
      but would make the dates for withdrawal goals instead of deadlines;

      2) Pass the same bill again but without the congressional �pork� barrel

      3) A Short-term Funding Bill;

      4) A Stronger Bill: A new bill to provide funding to bring all the troops

      Passage of a weaker bill is unlikely given that lawmakers have taken a
      strong stand and are strongly supported by the public. A similar bill
      without the pork would be welcome but could easily be cast as a political
      stunt given the veto of virtually the same bill.

      Many Democratic lawmakers are eyeing the possibility of a short-term funding
      bill. Given that the president�s war request was $93 billion and Congress
      passed a $121 billion bill, but the Congressional Research Service just
      released a report that the Pentagon has funding for the war until July, a
      short-term bill would only need to provide $30 billion (current spending is
      $10 billion per month and the 2007 fiscal year ends on Sept 30). Beyond the
      faulty math problem, the short-term solution simply continues the larger
      policy problem and Congress and the President would have the same
      confrontations in the Defense Authorization bill, Defense Appropriations
      bill, and the FY2008 supplemental.

      The best option is to take up Sen. Graham�s challenge and present a stronger
      bill that would provide funds to bring all of the troops home. It is clear
      that Bush is out of step with the American public and has no desire to
      resolve the conflict nor negotiate a compromise so any of the first three
      options will likely fail. A clean bill to bring the troops home would
      empower the grassroots and allow citizens across the country to get involved
      in the debate. It would also allow for the voices of Iraqis to enter into
      this one-sided discussion as tens of thousands of Iraqis demonstrated on
      April 10th against the occupation. This type of bill would also put the most
      pressure on Republicans and conservative Democrats who would be needed to
      override a veto.

      Role of the Anti-War Movement

      Over the next short period there are three primary tasks for the anti-war
      movement. Pressure Republicans and conservative Democrats, shore up
      Progressives, and conduct massive public education on why funding withdrawal
      is the right policy. The anti-war movement must realize that Congress is not
      comprised of peaceniks, but also that political compromises will be made
      along the way. Constant pressure from both sides will be needed. In the long
      process to end the Vietnam War, over 30 votes were taken on various pieces
      of legislation. Public pressure was the key to moving legislation and
      changing lawmakers positions. That same pressure is needed now.

      Erik Leaver is the Carol and Ed Newman Fellow at the Institute for Policy
      Studies and the policy outreach coordinator for Foreign Policy In Focus.
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