Can Dems spin Iraq war cave-in as a victory?

Harry Reid doesn't have the votes to cut off war funding, but he should stop pretending his compromise blocks the president's war plans.

Published May 23, 2007 10:30PM (EDT)

This press release from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid put me over the edge. It's headlined:

America Speaks Out on the War in Iraq: First Responders

First Responders join Senators to Highlight the Impact of the War in Iraq on their Communities

It's a photo op for Sens. Debbie Stabenow and Jon Tester (misidentified as "John" in the press release) to act like they're doing something to end the Iraq war and support America's first responders -- police, firefighters and other emergency workers -- at the same time. Who could be against that?

I'll wait and see how Tester and Stabenow vote on the cave-in Iraq supplemental funding bill before criticizing them. But I'd like Reid to stop pretending he's trying to stop the war right now. And I'd especially like him to stop pretending the bill he's backing is some kind of victory for Democrats. Americans have already "spoken out" on the war. They oppose it. They elected Democrats to end it. Now the Associated Press reports Reid's boast that the compromise legislation would be the first war-funding bill sent to Bush since the U.S. invasion of Iraq "where he won't get a blank check." The president is absolutely getting a blank check, Harry, and Democrats should be honest about it. As proposed, the benchmarks are toothless; they have no consequences, and Republicans are making sure Bush can waive them and continue spending when -- note that I didn't say "if" -- Nouri al-Maliki's government fails to meet them.

I was trying to live with Michael Tomasky's analysis in the Guardian today. I wanted to agree with it; it's smart. Tomasky focuses on the 61 House Democrats holding seats Bush won in 2004, many still considered vulnerable to a Republican knockoff. He argues that, with narrow majorities in the House and Senate, the Democrats don't have the votes to cut off funding for the war, and that at any rate, "Iraq is Bush's war and Bush's failure." I do think there are political risks to continuing to attach timelines for withdrawal to the funding bill. But as I've said before, there are also enormous political risks to going along with the president simply because, well, um, he probably has the votes anyway -- and who wants to seem soft on defense? This was, of course, the stirring rationale that led many Democrats to vote to authorize the use of military force in Iraq in October 2002 -- a vote they now regret.

Tomasky, like too many Democrats, simply accepts that attaching timelines to the funding bill is tantamount to "defunding the troops." I'm trying hard not to indulge in lefty wishful thinking -- that if only politicians stand up and talk tough on the war, they'll be rewarded; I know it's not that simple -- but it seems like caving on this bill makes it harder for Democrats to claim they're the party that wants to stop the war. Meanwhile, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi seems to be trying to have it both ways -- she's taking Reid's line that the bill is a step forward in opposing the war, while telling CNN she'll vote against anything that doesn't contain timelines. "I think it's a giant step to begin the end of the war," Pelosi claims. I don't believe she believes it's a "giant" step, because it isn't. What will the leading Democratic presidential candidates do? Sen. Joe Biden says he'll support the bill; all eyes are on Sen. Hillary Clinton, of course, who has so far declined to tell reporters how she will vote.

I agree with Tomasky that this isn't the Democrats' last shot at the war. By the time the president has to come back for more funding at the end of September, the prognosis for "victory" in Iraq is likely to be grimmer than it is now, and perhaps more Republicans will join Democrats in trying to get aggressive about bringing the troops home. Far more than Democrats, I blame the Republicans who've been pretending to talk tough on the war -- those 14 House members who bragged about their sit-down with Bush a few weeks ago; so-called moderate (more accurately, vulnerable) senators like Susan Collins and Norm Coleman -- but refuse to back their antiwar talk with votes. While cowardly antiwar Republicans confide they're giving the president until September, more American soldiers are dying. This has been the bloodiest six-month period since the war began. If I had a child fighting in Iraq -- and like the vast majority of the American media and political elite, I don't -- I'd be furious that Democratic leaders were trying to bill their cave-in to the president as a victory.

By Joan Walsh

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