Clumsy Political Process

by , April 01, 2007

Far be it from me to defend elected Democrats in most circumstances. However, a certain amount of criticism of Democrats in Congress for not acting strongly enough to end President Bush’s misbegotten war in Iraq suggests an inordinate impatience that reflects a certain lack of understanding of just how convoluted the political processes in the Imperial City are. It’s difficult to get simple things done in Congress sometimes, but that’s what you get when you rely on political processes – and it’s not always a bad thing.

While it certainly appears that Congress isn’t able to do much of substance to stop or even slow down the war, what is being done is likely to have effects down the road. Even if the current resolutions are unlikely to do much right away, President Bush’s and other administration-loyals’ very shrillness about them suggests they are having an impact that he doesn’t like.

The latest examples of what many deem ineffectual gestures are supplementary spending measures that set deadlines – though not necessarily mandatory deadlines – for the beginning of troop withdrawals from Iraq. The House passed a bill last week, by the barest of margins, while the Senate passed a bill this week, by a 51-47 margin. President Bush has vowed to veto any version of a funding bill that includes a deadline for withdrawal.

Both measures are tainted by the addition of pork projects, ranging from subsidies for the spinach industry (damaged by the recent tainted spinach scare) to Gulf Coast hurricane relief to raising the minimum wage. These projects were included to gather in wavering legislators, who may be ambivalent about a deadline to end the Iraq war, but presumably simply can’t pass up any chance to crow back home that they have sequestered some of the taxpayers’ money for special interests in their districts or states. Ironically, although many Republicans openly salivated at the pork, hardly any crossed over (only Sens. Hagel of Nebraska and Smith of Oregon, already on record as critics of the war, in the Senate) to vote for the deadline-laden bills.

The fact that the legislative leadership believed they had to offer sweeteners is a reflection of division within the Democratic party, or at least its elected legislators. It is worth remembering that while the Iraq war was almost certainly the primary reason voters gave Democrats a majority in December, the Democrats were also shrewd enough to run relatively conservative Democrats in districts in North Carolina and elsewhere that Bush had carried in 2004.

Given that these measures passed by narrow margins, there is almost no chance that the congressional leadership will be able to muster the two-thirds majority required to override a presidential veto.

To add to the complications, short of cutting off all funds for the war, effective at some future date (presumably leaving time and resources for an orderly withdrawal) Congress does not have the power to order the president to end the war. Furthermore, even if a bill that attached conditions, such as denying funds for permanent bases or limiting the amount of time National Guard troops can be required to stay in Iraq by a veto-proof majority, that would probably not be the end of it. The administration would argue that this is an unconstitutional incursion on the president’s commander-in-chief powers. If the issue went to court – assuming a court would not refuse to consider it, deeming it a “political question” of the kind courts typically refuse to decide – it would probably not be decided before the current president leaves office.

Of course, this is all very frustrating for Americans who questioned this war from the outset and have a certain respect for the Constitution. The Constitution gives Congress – and only Congress – the power to declare war, reflecting the founders’ suspicion of overweening executive power. But since the Korean War in 1950, Congresses controlled by both parties have abdicated this responsibility, contenting themselves with simple resolutions giving the president the power to do what he wants.

There was almost no serious debate in Congress before the United States invaded Iraq, and there was no declaration of war. Many of those now trumpeting their opposition to the way the war has turned out voted for the resolution that the administration then interpreted as giving the president virtually unlimited discretion to start a war at a time of his choosing. With U.S. military people deployed in harm’s way in Iraq, it’s difficult to put that cat back in the bag.

There’s also the fact that while most Americans do now oppose the war and want to see the troops start to come home, there’s ambivalence about how that should be accomplished. Democrats, perhaps with less justification than they think, are sensitive about charges – which you know the Republicans will fling – that they show insufficient zeal in supporting the troops. One can regret a certain timidity, but one can understand it.

Does all this mean that what Congress has done is totally ineffectual? I don’t think so. These bills are an important political milestone. Democrats at some level do understand that they owe their majority in Congress to discontent with an increasingly unpopular war, and they have translated that discontent into a plan of their own.

Thus the necessarily difficult process of winding down a war that we argued as early as August 2002 was a mistake from the beginning encounters the necessarily messy process of American legislative politics.

One aspect of the debate is especially puzzling: the equating with defeatism of setting a deadline for beginning to withdraw U.S. troops. There’s a certain plausibility to the argument that if they know when U.S. forces are leaving, insurgents and terrorists in Iraq may lay low until that deadline, then accelerate their attacks. Sen. Mark Pryor of Arkansas has even suggested passing a bill with a secret deadline that nobody outside the White House, Congress and the Iraqi government would know. But it’s hard to imagine that it wouldn’t leak out rather quickly.

The recent decline in sectarian killings in Baghdad and the quiescence of the Mahdi Army, loosely controlled by radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, suggest some plausibility to the argument that a deadline would lead to unleashing the forces of chaos when or if U.S. forces leave Iraq. However, if the U.S. presence is contributing to chaos in Iraq – which is certainly true although reasonable people can disagree about the extent – and leaving is a good idea, what’s wrong with a deadline? Setting deadlines is part of setting priorities, a very American – nay, very human and very necessary process.

Although the funding bills are unlikely to end the war directly, they are part of a process that should lead to winding it down. Partly because of discussion engendered, more people are aware that the war was misbegotten from the beginning.

More people understand that whether or not knowing deception was involved, the Iraq war was sold to the American people based on assertions that turned out not to be true. Hardly anybody but a few still-deluded neocons now believes that setting up a functional secular democracy in Iraq that respects the human rights of minorities is anything but long shot that is probably downright impossible for an outside force to accomplish.

Most Americans may still hope the “surge” in American troops can lead to at least a modicum of stability in Iraq, a situation in which a significant number of Iraqis now inclined to engage in bloodshed will see some hope in engaging in less-violent political activity. But the odds don’t favor that outcome. More Americans than ever now understand the likely futility of this war, but it takes political "leaders" longer to figure this out and try to position themselves in front

All this is difficult to admit. It’s important to remember that at the beginning solid majorities of Americans supported the war. At some level, moving to a position of opposition involves admitting you were wrong – although there are ways to avoid it, like blaming the problems on incompetent executions or politicians’ failure to "unleash" the military properly – and few of us enjoy admitting we were wrong about anything, let alone a major policy.

Without actually cutting off funding, which few in Congress are ready for, Congress may not be able to end this war as quickly as we might like. But the legislation passed in the last couple of weeks was actually stronger than what had been discussed in January. Members of Congress are learning that talking about ending the war does not bring as negative a response as it used to. The administration is becoming increasingly isolated – while they may vote with the administration, even Republicans are distancing themselves.

The founders purposely created a convoluted system in which it is difficult to get much done unless there is a rock-solid consensus. While the recent bills will not end the war, they are part of creating that consensus. The president may still think he can win the public back by denouncing the Democrats as "abandoning" the troops, I suspect he is wrong. The war may drag on tragically for longer than you or I might like, but it will end, and with a whimper rather than a bang.

Unless the president decides to try to save the Republican Party by ending the war before he leaves office, we may have to put up with it a while longer. But it now seems likely that it will be more difficult for the next president eager for war to build support for it. If we’re fortunate, dissatisfaction with executive power-seizing will linger. Perhaps the next time talk of war is in the air Congress will take back its full authority and announce that there will be no war and no funding for one until Congress declares it.

That may not seem like much, but it is something.

Read more by Alan Bock