The complete myth driving our Iraq "debate"

Democrats allowed "de-funding" to be equated with "abandoning the troops," and that myth became decisive in the debate over our Iraq war policy.

Published May 26, 2007 2:55PM (EDT)

(updated below - updated again)

In Newsweek, Jonathan Alter has a long article defending -- as lamentably necessary -- the decision of the Democrats to fund the Iraq war without any limitations. Both Barbara O'Brien and Big Tent Democrat, among others, have very thorough replies to Alter's argument, so I want to focus on one specific (and, in my view, central) point Alter makes:

The whole "support the troops" meme has become a terrible problem for Democrats. Even though, as Glenn Greenwald has argued in Salon, cutting off funding doesn't mean soldiers will have their guns and bullets and armor taken away in the middle of a battle, Americans have been convinced that it does. They want to end the war and support the troops at the same time -- i.e., send back the food and still eat.

This is not a figment of some spineless Democrat's imagination but the reality of what he or she will face back in the district over Memorial Day. Democrats who vote to cut funding not only risk getting thrown in the briar patch by Republican hit men in Washington; they also might not be able to satisfy their otherwise antiwar constituents at home.

Both of the premises which Alter sets forth here are correct: (a) de-funding does not even arguably constitute "endangerment or abandonment of the troops," but (b) "Americans have been convinced that it does." And therein one finds what is the most extraordinary and telling fact of our political landscape. Namely, our Iraq war policy was just determined, in large part if not principally, by a complete myth: that de-funding proposals constitute an abandonment or, more ludicrously still, "endangerment" of the troops.

It is difficult to overstate how irrational this theme is, and yet it is equally difficult to overstate what a decisive role it just played in ensuring the continuation of the war. Polls consistently demonstrate that Americans overwhelmingly favor compelled withdrawal of the troops from Iraq. Other than defunding, they overwhelmingly favor every legislative mechanism for achieving that goal -- from a straightforward bill setting a mandatory time deadline to a rescission of the resolution authorizing military force to compulsory benchmarks. Yet polls are equally uniform in showing that a solid majority of Americans oppose de-funding.

Yet, rationally speaking, this makes absolutely no sense. De-funding is nothing more than a legislative instrument for ending the war, and is substantively indistinguishable in every way from the other war-ending legislative means which Americans favor. Congress has used de-funding or the threat of de-funding multiple times in the past to compel the President to cease military action, and to invoke it, Congress simply consults with the military, determines how much time is needed to effectuate a safe withdrawal, and then de-funds the war accordingly. As I've written before:

This unbelievably irrational, even stupid, concept has arisen and has now taken root -- that to cut off funds for the war means that, one day, our troops are going to be in the middle of a vicious fire-fight and suddenly they will run out of bullets -- or run out of gas or armor -- because Nancy Pelosi refused to pay for the things they need to protect themselves, and so they are going to find themselves in the middle of the Iraq war with no supplies and no money to pay for what they need. That is just one of those grossly distorting, idiotic myths the media allows to become immovably lodged in our political discourse and which infects our political analysis and prevents any sort of rational examination of our options.

That is why virtually all political figures run away as fast and desperately as possible from the idea of de-funding a war -- it's as though they have to strongly repudiate de-funding options because de-funding has become tantamount to "endangering our troops."

The question that naturally arises is how did this happen? Why would Americans, who overwhelmingly want a forced end to the war, favor every measure for achieving that other than de-funding? How did it happen that -- to use Alter's formulation -- "Americans have been convinced" of a patent falsehood: that de-funding would "endanger the troops"?

In one sense, it is hard to think of a political fact -- at least since it was revealed that 70% of Americans continued even 6 months after the invasion to believe that Saddam personally planned the 9/11 attacks -- which more profoundly reveals how broken our political and media institutions are than this. There are all sorts of reasons which, though misguided, at least constitute coherent arguments against withdrawal. But the notion that de-funding constitutes a failure to support the troops -- in a way that, say, timetables do not -- is just inane, not even in the realm of basic rationality or coherence.

And yet exactly this nonsensical notion was permitted not only to take hold, but to become unchallengeable conventional wisdom in our public debate over the war. The whole debate we just had was centrally premised on an idea that is not merely unpersuasive, but factually false, just ridiculous on its face. That a blatant myth could be outcome-determinative in such an important debate is a depressingly commonplace indictment of our dysfunctional media and political institutions.

But the real reason this happened is because Democrats not only allowed it to occur, but eagerly helped it. As much as anyone else, even leading anti-war Democrats such as Carl Levin and Barack Obama continuously equated de-funding with a failure to "support the troops."

Time and again, even those Democrats who supported a mandatory troop withdrawal would talk about de-funding like it was some sort of grotesque act of betrayal ("oh, absolutely not, we will not de-fund the war. We will support our troops"). Over and over, this is what Americans heard even from Democrats who oppose the war:

Meanwhile, Senate Democrats have their own divisions. Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, has called for initiating a withdrawal but has rejected a cutoff in funding. "I think that sends the wrong message to our troops," he said a few days ago. "We're going to support our troops, and one way to support them is to find a way out of Iraq earlier, rather than later."

Is it any wonder that Americans reached the completely irrational conclusion that to de-fund the war is to endanger the troops? Not only were Dick Cheney and Joe Lieberman saying this, so, too, were most leading Democratic war opponents.

Thus, it was perfectly natural for Americans to assume that if virtually everyone -- including war opponents -- agreed that de-funding was the one measure that should not be considered, then there must be something truly dangerous and radical about it. Since virtually everyone rejected it as an option, it became toxic, and even most Americans who want an end to the war no matter how it is achieved turned against defunding.

So Alter is correct that Americans became convinced that de-funding constitutes troop abandonment. But that does not excuse what the Democrats did here, because the principal reason that Americans became convinced of that myth is because Democrats themselves embraced and propagated it. And now that myth lies cemented at the center of our political debate, and as a result, the most effective Congressional weapon for ending the war -- the one the Founders designed for that purpose -- has become politically radioactive, all based on a ludicrous notion that literally has no basis in reality.

This has long been the principal flaw of Democrats and it has not changed. They are both fearful and incapable of defending any position unless, from the outset, they are assured, by their conniving and principle-free consultants, that most Americans already agree with it. The idea of forcefully articulating a view in order to change public opinion -- such as explaining why de-funding is a perfectly valid option like all the others for ending the war -- never occurs to them.

They embraced timetables because most Americans supported it. But they ran away from de-funding because Americans did not, and they were too afraid of getting "hammered" to even bother to make the case. It would be one thing if Democrats had tried to fight against this anti-defunding mythology and then, having failed, funded the war based on the claim that the public was still against defunding. But they never tried at all. They did the opposite. They embraced that myth from the beginning and eagerly helped to spread it.

And, as a result, defunding is now simply barred as a measure for ending the war, even though the reason it is prohibited is completely nonsensical. What a sad, barren and embarrassing state of political discourse we have, even -- or, rather, especially -- on the weightiest of matters.

UPDATE: Jane Harman provides a perfect illustration of what Democrats did here when she tells Joe Klein that she saw her vote on the war as one that pitted "those kids on the C-130 [deploying to Iraq]" against "the overwhelming opposition to this war in my district." One can stand with the latter only by abandoning the former.

UPDATE II: Joe Biden, on CNN's Late Edition today, explaining why he voted to fund the war: "And here we are on Memorial Day, talking about the need to take care of and protect those we put in the field and take care of those we bring home. I couldn't vote to cut off the funding for them."

By Glenn Greenwald

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