Democratically Controlled Congress Stands on the Brink of Irrelevance on Iraq
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Next week, Ryan Crocker, the U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, and General David Petraeus, the army's counter-insurgency guru, will brief Congress on the Bush administration's claims of progress in Iraq. At stake is not only the upper hand in the political debate over the continuing occupation, but an enormous amount of money -- $147 billion -- that was supposedly conditioned on tangible measures of progress, specifically 18 "benchmarks" attached to the 2007 supplemental spending bill.
According to a report by the non-partisan Government Accountability Office (GAO), only three of those benchmarks have been met, and those were among the minor ones (The White House has promised to "water down" the GAO's findings). In addition to rampant insecurity throughout much of the country, Iraq's political situation is, objectively, a disaster, and most Iraqis agree that U.S. troops cause more violence than they prevent.
But despite the reality on the ground, the administration last week threw a Hail-Mary pass, announcing that it would ask for another $50 billion for war-fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan through next Spring. That's in addition to $147 billion already requested for the two countries.
There's no reason to believe the administration won't get it -- consider how many times congressional Democrats have uttered some variant of "It's time we stopped giving Bush a blank check for Iraq" as they signed a series of blank checks for Iraq. Bush has proved that he can continue moving the goalposts again and again without being called on it by the media, and Congress has shown that it will let him, even eight months after the Democratic take-over of Capitol Hill.
It has become a game. The reality is that there is no $50 billion supplemental, and there won't be for several weeks (if at all this year). The stories about the new funding request are White House "plants," announced on the eve of the much-anticipated Iraq progress report in order to show confidence in the face of waning public support for the occupation and, more importantly, to divert the national conversation from the failure of the troop escalation -- a failure that should lead to a debate about how to exit Iraq with the minimum of damage -- to a new debate about whether higher troop levels should remain until next spring. You don't have to look too hard to see the goalposts moving.
It's much like the surge itself, a stop-gap measure that nobody seriously believed had a chance of changing the ugly situation in Iraq. It was, however, spectacularly successful in distracting the country from its post-election discourse about ending the occupation, focusing instead on the now-familiar argument that war opponents should wait until September's progress report. At that point, the tacit understanding was that Congress would rise up and demand an end to the war if the 18 benchmarks weren't met. Now that September is here, we're supposed to focus on the next shiny object.
The Democrats are reacting to this charade by conceding the battle before it begins, with Michigan's Carl Levin offering to remove a deadline from the amendment he and Jack Reed, D-R.I., co-sponsored (the deadline was already riddled with loopholes) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid offering to "compromise" with Senate Republicans by dropping his already watered-down demand for a spring "withdrawal."
As Dick Durbin, the senate majority whip, told the Chicago Tribune , "When it comes to the budget, I face a dilemma that some of my colleagues do." He opposes the war, but "felt that I should always provide the resources for the troops in the field."
That mean throwing good money (and lives) after bad. Here's the reality of the "surge":
- Iraqi civilian and U.S. and Iraqi military and police deaths are up
- The Iraqi government is tottering, and there is credible talk of an impending coup
- The Iraqi people, still without regular electricity and water and fearing for their lives whenever they go out to buy groceries, want the United States out
- 40 percent of the middle class has fled the country
For more details, see "A Preview to General Petraeus' DC Dog-and-Pony Show" in AlterNet's War on Iraq special coverage.
What all this means is that unless the Democratic majority makes a dramatic turnaround and stops playing along with the White House -- a risky move, but one that's within their Constitutional authority -- they, along with the entire institution, will no longer be relevant voices in the debate over Iraq.
Consider, after all, that the "Petraeus" report is being prepared by the White House; that Petraeus is a reliable partisan who's inspired talk of a GOP presidential run and who wrote an op-ed on the eve of the 2004 elections in which he promised that the momentum was shifting in Iraq and said that local security forces were improving every day; that Petraeus has said that he "softened" the intelligence community's assessment of the security situation in Baghdad, while he's told people privately that he needs ten years to put down the insurgency.
That Congress is treating the report as a serious and impartial analysis of the situation in Iraq is essentially an acknowledgment that the Republicans have a working majority on issues of war and peace, regardless of the fact that the Democrats control the agenda. Significant majorities of Democrats have voted to end the occupation (to one degree or another) on different occasions so far, and each time one or two dozen "Bush Dog" Democrats crossed the aisle to kill the efforts to get out of Dodge.
We're seeing a caucus that is controlled by fear -- fear that the hawks who were responsible for the disaster in Iraq will shift the blame their way; fear that arguing against U.S. militarism will make them look like wimps, or traitors, in the eyes of voters; fear that they'll be proven disastrously wrong and be held responsible for the often fancifully exaggerated consequences of ending the occupation that the hawks whisper about in excited tones; terror that the wrong move could cost them the electoral advantage that everyone agrees they'll have in 2008 or, worse, prompt a right-wing backlash like that which ushered in the Reagan/Bush era after Vietnam.
But calling out the Democrats for their feckless support of the occupation isn't enough. Opponents of the war face a perfect political storm in DC that transcends party politics.
The backdrop is a presidential race in which the leading Democrats appear to be intent on proving that they can match their opponents' mindless belligerence, and the leading Republicans feel that they have no choice but to embrace Bush's war or face the wrath of GOP primary voters.
The debate has also been influenced by a massive propaganda campaign that's allowed the White House and its backers to claim success in Iraq out of thin air. As Greg Sargeant pointed out in a must-read item, if one looks at "the totality of media's performance this summer on the Iraq debate, it becomes a good deal clearer just how awful it's all been -- and just how complicit these failings were in helping to shift the debate" on the Iraq "surge."
CBS Evening News' anchor Katie Couric said this week of Iraq: "We hear so much about things going bad, but real progress has been made there in terms of security and stability." The contrast between Couric's bubbly credulity and Walter Cronkite's famous 1968 broadcast in which he concluded of the Vietnam war that the US was "mired in stalemate" couldn't be more pronounced.
At the end of the day, Washington's strategic class is frozen, unable to concede defeat because to admit that the U.S. project in Iraq has failed is to admit that in the 21st century, the most powerful country in the history of humanity can be humbled by a small dysfunctional state whose armed forces it destroyed more than a decade earlier, a country that it spent 12 years slowly and leisurely strangling under some of the harshest sanctions in history before shocking and awing it a second time, dismantling its government and hanging its erstwhile dictator in the process.
To admit that is to beg the question of whether maintaining all that costly hard power is really worth it in the first place. Leaving Iraq means begging the question of whether America is comfortable with its neocolonial policies, and that's a debate that Bush -- like every imperial-minded U.S. president since Thomas Jefferson -- wants desperately to avoid.
Ultimately, while Congress is sidelining itself on the most important issue of our time, it will be the Iraqis -- Iraqis from across the country's political spectrum -- who will eventually force a U.S. withdrawal, either by negotiation or by violence, just as they kicked out the Brits before us and the Turkmen, Ottomans and Safavids before them. The tragedy is that a little bit of courage on the part of our own law-makers could go a long way towards making that inevitable withdrawal a lot less painful than it is likely to be.