Bush the 'Commander Guy' Rejects Spending on His Own War

This week, with an almost totally incoherent speech in which he anointed himself the "Commander Guy" and once again tried to link the ongoing occupation of Iraq to al Qaeda, George W. Bush vetoed more than $100 billion in funds for the war he chose to start and now refuses to end.

Congressional Democrats had sent Bush a compromise spending bill that would have set a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq by the end of next year, but one with enough loopholes built into it that could have driven a Humvee through it all the way to Baghdad. The deadline for withdrawal was actually a "goal," and there were exceptions for troops that were training Iraqis, protecting U.S. facilities and conducting "targeted counter-terrorism missions."

But even that tepid compromise measure was too much for Bush, who insists that Congress should have little or no role in shaping Iraq policy. Bush also objected to $20 billion in funds -- characterized as useless "pork" by Congressional Republicans -- that included money for Veterans' hospitals, for reimbursing states for ongoing healthcare costs and for reconstruction projects in areas still suffering from the after-effects of Hurricane Katrina.

But even as Bush fought this latest battle to a stalemate, his veto helped opponents of the war in Congress achieve something that they could only have dreamed of a few months ago: It created what will now be an unmovable narrative that Bush wants to stay in Iraq, and Congress, led by the Democrats, wants to leave. Regardless of whether that's a true statement, it's certainly simplified. That's the view that emerged from this fight, and is now all but irreversible in the public's mind. That means that congressional Republicans continue to choose between their own chances at reelection and supporting a president with a 30 percent approval rate as he prosecutes a war that the public has clearly rejected. The strategy all along has been to unify Democrats, divide Republicans -- with pressure on the most vulnerable among them -- and isolate Bush. So far, it's been very successful.

But a key question will be answered in the following days and weeks: Did congressional Democrats become so accustomed to losing during their long years out of power that they've forgotten how to win? There's no question that they have the wind at their backs. Dozens of protests against the veto took place across the country on Wednesday, from Jackson, Miss., to Portland, Maine. A CNN poll found that 66 percent of Americans opposed the occupation, and six in ten "said they backed Congress in its standoff with the White House." More than half of those who responded to a Pew poll this week said that Democrats should "insist" on a deadline for withdrawal, while only a third wanted their representatives to oppose it.

The congressional leadership's next move will reveal whether they've fully internalized how deeply unpopular Bush and the occupation of Iraq really are. They have three choices. They can capitulate and send Bush a "clean" spending bill with no timetable for withdrawal. This would be a disaster all the way around; not only would it continue a bloody and immoral war, it would also reinforce the idea that Democrats are weak on an issue where the public is squarely in their corner. Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., who has been way ahead of most of his colleagues on the issue, said of that option: "It's not going to cut it anymore." Liberal Dems in the Congress, many of whom held their noses to vote for the supplemental in the first place, would almost certainly reject surrendering to Bush at this point.

The second option, favored by Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., is to give Bush a clean but short-term funding bill -- one that will only cover two months of the occupation at a time -- and then make the White House come back to Congress for another round, at which point the "surge" will have proven futile and a binding withdrawal resolution will have a better shot at getting enough votes to override a second veto.

Another option is to send a bill that doesn't have solid timelines but does require the Iraqi government and the occupation forces to achieve certain benchmarks in order to continue receiving U.S. military protection. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said that congressional Republicans would be willing to consider benchmarks, as long as there are no consequences for missing them. (This leads to the logical question: What's the point?)

GOP moderate Susan Collins told the LA Times this week that while Bush wants "a straight funding bill with no benchmarks, no conditions, no reports ... many of us, on both sides of the aisle, don't see that as viable."

The danger is that Republicans will get out ahead in demanding benchmarks, but benchmarks with no teeth. That would give the administration and Republican leaders the best of both worlds: They'd take credit for reining in Bush's war without end but they wouldn't constrain his actions. A significant number of anti-war Democrats can also be expected to oppose a bill with symbolic benchmarks.

The debate would have a real impact because whatever benchmarks are set are almost certain to be missed. The Iraqi government, such as it is, faces structural hurdles that are impossible to overcome as long as the occupation lasts; the Iraqi Parliament declared this week that it will take a two-month recess this summer, effectively dooming the chances of finalizing an oil deal and reaching the other requirements that might satisfy Congress.

According to journalist Greg Sargent, congressional leaders are leaning towards the benchmark approach, although the course is anything but set. But the short-leash funding plan has one compelling advantage: It would force yet another debate and another vote on withdrawal in short order. That means that, again, pro-war legislators would have to stake out their position on the occupation. Until the Washington establishment can accept that the conflict in Iraq has no military solution and pulls our troops out of Iraq, the best thing is to have that debate as often as possible.

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