The silence on Iraq is deafening

As the Bush administration dithers, Congress needs to debate a realistic timetable for bringing our troops home.

Published November 5, 2005 1:28PM (EST)

There has never been more frustration with the war in Iraq, and less clarity about our mission there, than we face today. More and more Americans want to know when our troops will come home, and more and more experts agree that our presence in Iraq is fueling the very insurgency that has claimed so many lives. And while we haven't heard the administration clearly articulate our military mission in Iraq, there is another silence that is just as deafening -- the lack of a debate in Congress about how and when that mission will be brought to an end. While senators are rightly calling for explanations about how intelligence was used to make the case for war in Iraq, there is scant attention to how and when the U.S. should bring its primary military mission in that country to a close.

We have an opportunity in the Senate, however, to finally hold this long-awaited debate. The Senate is poised to consider the Department of Defense authorization bill. That legislation includes $50 billion primarily for operations in Iraq, in response to funding requests from an administration that has refused to budget for the costs of our ongoing operations in Iraq, and refused to make the hard choices that would be required to cover those costs.

Congress has continued to approve funding to support our brave servicemen and women in Iraq. But when it comes to making sure that our military mission in Iraq is clearly defined and tied to a flexible timetable, Congress has, quite simply, dropped the ball. We have abdicated our responsibility to get some clarity about the U.S. military mission in Iraq, and members of both political parties have been downright skittish about even calling on the president to provide a timeframe, however flexible, to bring that military mission to a close.

A military timetable won't solve all our problems in Iraq, nor will it signify American disengagement from that country. Intense American diplomatic and political efforts will likely be needed long after the troops' mission is accomplished and they are withdrawn. I expect that we will also continue military and security cooperation with the Iraqis, as we work with them and with others around the world to combat terrorist networks.

But a flexible, realistic timetable could undercut the insurgency that rages in Iraq, an insurgency that thrives on conspiracy theories and suspicions regarding American intentions. A timetable would also encourage Iraqi ownership of their country's political process, moving Iraqis toward real political independence by making it clear that the U.S. will not be there indefinitely. Finally, a timetable would enable us to devote more resources to the most pressing national security issue we face -- combating the global terrorist networks that continue to threaten this country.

The Senate should insist that the president provide a flexible timetable for military withdrawal. So far, however, it has been too timid to even debate this issue. Americans all across the country are talking about Iraq -- in coffee shops and in high schools and at football games. People wonder about the terrible price we are paying to fight this war, what exactly the U.S. military mission is, and when it will end. Americans talk about these issues every day, and yet Congress keeps ducking the tough questions.

The American people deserve a full congressional debate about the U.S. mission in Iraq. And our service members in Iraq, and their families, deserve a clear explanation of the mission they are serving and the time frame, tied to realistic benchmarks, for completing that mission. We need to continue providing these brave men and women with the resources they need in Iraq. But we also need to give them some long-overdue answers.

There was a great deal of attention paid to the 2,000th casualty in Iraq, which served as a sobering reminder of how many brave Americans have lost their lives in the war. But what about the soldiers who died in Iraq in the weeks and months before that, or the soldiers who are yet to die in Baghdad, or Tikrit, or on the streets of Basra? We owe each and every one of these soldiers, and their families, and the nation they serve, serious congressional debate and action.

The Senate has an opportunity next week to demand a course correction for an Iraq policy that is dangerously adrift. We cannot afford to wait any longer for the administration to act. The sooner the Senate acknowledges this responsibility, the sooner we can bring some clarity, and some direction, to the U.S. military mission. Until then, the American people will be waiting, and the silence will be deafening.

By Sen. Russ Feingold

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Iraq War