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Democrats must face up to Iraq
By PHILIP GAILEY
Published January 7, 2007
In control of Congress after 12 years in the minority, jubilant Democrats once again have the power and the kingdom. They must feel like pinching themselves to make sure it isn't a cruel dream. As the new ruling majority, they have the best offices, all the committee chairmanships, the larger staffs and the right to set the tone and the agenda on Capitol Hill. And oh yes, they made history on their first day by electing Nancy Pelosi as the first woman House speaker.
After a few days of celebration and parties, House Democrats have vowed to do some amazing things in the first 100 hours of the 110th Congress. In that short time, Democrats say they will drain the ethics swamp, raise the minimum wage, fund stem cell research, lower prescription drug prices, shove the oil industry away from the public trough, cut student loan interest rates and strengthen homeland security.
These issues are low-hanging fruit, poll-tested and politically popular. But in case Democrats haven't noticed, there is an elephant in the room, and it's not the Republican Party mascot. I don't mean to be a party pooper, but the country is waiting to hear what Democrats plan to do about the Iraq war. They led voters to believe that if they were given control of Congress, they would force President Bush to change course and begin withdrawing American combat troops from Iraq.
The president is about to engage Democrats on the issue, and we'll know soon enough if they have the political resolve - and unity - for a showdown with Bush, who is expected to announce this week a "surge" in troop strength in Iraq.
The fact is, there are limits to what Congress can do to influence Bush's war policy. As commander in chief, he controls the nation's armed forces. Congress can hold hearings, conduct investigations and pass resolutions - good political theater but unlikely to sway a president who prides himself on making "gut" decisions. Congress does have the power of the purse, but Democrats know that any attempt to cut off funding for the war effort would be politically explosive, with Bush and the Republicans accusing them of denying U. S. troops the means to fight.
One problem facing Democrats is the lack of unity on the war. The John Murtha Democrats are ready to start withdrawing combat troops now. The Joe Lieberman Democrats still believe the war is winnable and support the surge. And there are those Democrats in the middle who want an end to the war but worry that a withdrawal at this point could leave behind a disaster in the Middle East.
Joe Biden, the new chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, strongly opposes a troop surge with or without conditions and plans to hold hearings. An antisurge resolution is being discussed in the corridors of the Capitol. There also is some talk of asking Congress to reconsider the 2002 resolution it passed authorizing the president to use force in Iraq, world opinion be damned.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin said he might consider an increase in troops as long as the surge is temporary and is part of an exit strategy. That was the position of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid until Friday, when he flipped and joined House Speaker Pelosi in opposing an increase in troop strength. In a letter to the president, the two Democratic leaders urged him instead to begin a redeployment of U.S. combat troops in four to six months.
Political support for the war has collapsed, and public opinion has turned decisively against the president's Iraq policy. If not now, when will Democrats stand up to Bush and tell him the sky is falling in Iraq? Even the generals - not to mention Henry Kissinger - are saying there no longer is a military solution in Iraq, if ever there was, and that a political solution is the only way out. But there is no reason to believe that the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government is even interested in finding a political solution to the sectarian violence in that stricken country.
A temporary troop surge will bring a surge in American casualties but is not likely to change much else in Iraq. Gen. John Abizaid, who is retiring as the top U.S. commander in the Middle East, and other American military officers have said as much.
Once again, Bush is about to announce a new strategy, a new way forward in Iraq. As long as American soldiers are fighting and dying in Iraq, Bush can maintain the illusion that something can still be done - a little more time, a few more troops and maybe a miracle will occur. The question now is whether Congress will buy into that illusion or insist that the president come to his senses.