Wednesday, November 15, 2006

If a problem is intractable, make it bigger

I forget where I first heard that sentiment, of which I am certainly not the source. Regardless, it is one that I like to follow, and one that President Bush should invoke now. Democrats want the troops pulled, and he says they need to stay. What to do?

First, some background. In 1998, Congress passed the Iraq Liberation Act, which stated the following:

"It should be the policy of the United States to support efforts to remove the regime headed by Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq and to promote the emergence of a democratic government to replace that regime."
In the House, the bill passed on a roll call vote of 360-38; among the Democrats, the vote was 157 in favor and 29 against. In the Senate the bill was passed by unanimous consent.

In 2002, Congress specifically authorized the use of military force against Iraq. The bill passed the House 296-133 (with 81 Democrats voting in favor) and the Senate 77-23 (29 Democrats voting in favor). Neither vote was close, and nearly 60% of Democrats in the Senate and 40% of Democrats in the House supported passage. It should be noted that the authorization for use of force in that bill was unambiguous and not time-constrained; check the text yourself.

If the Democrats no longer support these laws, then they should say so on the record. Not in a campaign, but through a binding vote in Congress. More on that below.

Now we find ourselves coming off an election where the Democrats captured the majority in both sides of Congress. I take no pleasure in pointing the following out, but the fact is that enemies of the United States are rejoicing at those election results. You can see some links here, here and here; Iraq al-Qaeda "welcomed" the results, while Iran thought the election was a victory for, well, Iran.

At a certain level I really don't care what they say. At another level, however, the effects of opinions like these are all too real. From a purely military standpoint, there is no chance that the US will be defeated in Iraq; for all the talk of casualties, in three and a half years we have lost well under half the number of soldiers that we did in little over a month on Iwo Jima. The real military strategy of our adversaries is simply to wait us out. Inflict enough casualties (increasing on the Iraqis themselves) and watch the attention and patience of the American people (or their government) wane.

The reaction of our enemies may be unfair to the Democrats. I don't think they sit up at night thinking of ways to help our adversaries (at least on purpose (note, that was a joke)). Unfair or not, though, it is the way the election is being perceived in many quarters. Consequently, the Democrats have a special responsibility to keep those perceptions in mind when they act.

What does it appear they will do? Well, Pelosi has called for a summit, and at the same time worked to sideline hawks in her own conference. Many want to withdraw troops, despite people in the military, Iraq, and even Iran thinking that would be a mistake. Some want to cut off funding, and the candidate that their leader endorsed for the number two position in the House is the same guy that thinks we should redeploy our troops to Okinawa. Bush has resisted calls for a forced timetable thus far, but many Democrats seem clearly inclined to ratchet up the pressure.

So, the question is, what should the President do? Here is what I suggest: by all means, sit down with the new leadership; listen to their ideas, talk about yours, ask questions of each other, etc. Then, go on prime time, national television and demand that the first substantive legislation considered by the new Congress in January be a reauthorization of our action in Iraq. Not one with a specific timeline for drawdown of troops, not one mincing words, and not one that will be construed as the US preparing to cut and run.

That's right, make them reauthorize the war, with an unapologetic endorsement of our mission and those who are working to carry it out. Maybe a mention of the Iraq Study Group if we must, and about how we need to work towards enabling Iraqis to take over their own security, etc. But that's it.

At this point, you probably think I'm crazy, but hear me out. From a military and policy perspective, the entire world currently sits waiting to hear that we are going to begin pulling out. As I mentioned above, that is exactly what the barbarians killing innocent Iraqis want, and by doing so we will be handing them a victory (and abetting in the slaughter of even more innocent Iraqis). Rightly or wrongly, those same people believe that the Democratic victory makes their cause more likely to succeed, and therefore encourages them in their carnage. We - and specifically the Democrats - need to send a clear signal that such a strategy is not going to work.

Now lets talk about the politics of it, first from Bush's perspective. He would immediately move from defense to offense, changing the tenor of the debate. The truth is that Democrats do not actually have an alternative vision for what to do about Iraq, and this is where Bush can step into the void. He could count on near universal Republican support (they've already paid their price at the polls, and want Iraq to succeed), and certainly enough Democratic support to have it pass. If Pelosi or Reid refused to even bring up the resolution for a vote, then they will have given the President (and the Republicans) one heck of an issue to take to the country. How could the Congressional leadership countenance, in a time of war, not even bringing to a vote a measure that the President says is integral to the war's prosecution? That is, I would argue, a politically (never mind morally) untenable position for the Democrats to hold. Bush can signal his intention for bipartisanship in other ways (minimum wage, etc.) but argue that this issue is too important and his responsibility to the soldiers too grave to compromise here.

From the Democratic perspective, they shouldn't have as much trouble with such a resolution as you might think. By controlling Congress, they could introduce an updated version at their leisure, debate nuances of strategy during funding hearings, etc. That is why there is no need - even from their side - to talk about timelines or the like in this resolution itself. It does absolutely nothing to prevent them from introducing a different, contradictory resolution later in the same Congress.

What it does do, though, is the following: 1) send the right message to the rest of the world about the commitment of America, 2) let the men and women serving in Iraq and elsewhere know that the country remains behind them, and 3) show that the new Congressional majority takes its responsibilities seriously. While the activist base of the Left won't be happy, I actually don't think it hurts the Democratic party at all. If anything, it would raise their stature and probably make the country more comfortable about having them running the legislative table.

What if the Democrats went along, and the President lost the vote? From a policy perspective, I think that would be a disaster. We would be confirming the worst instincts of the world and specifically our enemies regarding our willingness to wait out and defeat those who oppose us and to protect those whom we support. But if that is in fact the case, better we know it then naively pretend otherwise. We have nearly 150,000 troops in country now, risking their lives every day. If the country, or more specifically the country's elected representatives, no longer thinks their mission worthy, then they have a right to know that and to expect to be brought home. We as a society will have to face the consequences of such an unwise decision for a long time to come, but such is the perils of democracy.

So, President Bush, it's time to double down. Most Presidents at this point start to worry about their legacy, and - make no mistake - the war in Iraq will be yours. The best, and only, way to secure it is to make sure that the mission in Iraq succeeds. The leadership of the new majority is in effect saying that will never happen. If you believe otherwise, it is time to call their bluff. Take the case to the American people, and I think they - and then Congress - will be behind you. If they won't be, then the war has already been lost.

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