The Iraq debate: Caving in before it begins?

The Democrats are talking compromise. Has that worked yet?

Published September 7, 2007 10:48AM (EDT)

We've long suspected that the outcome of the September debate on <a href="Iraq would be what it always is: After making a lot of noise about bringing the troops home, Democrats in Congress would eventually find themselves giving the president more time to do pretty much whatever he wants.

What we didn't know: The collapse would come before the debate even started.

As the Washington Post reports this morning, Democratic leaders in Congress are signaling that they're "open to a more bipartisan approach to Iraq that would force the Bush administration to begin publicly planning for troop withdrawals but would stop short of requiring a firm timeline."

Explains House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer: "Clearly, we don't have the numbers to override the president's vetoes, as has been clearly demonstrated, nor do we expect to for a long time."

Explain we: That doesn't have to be the issue.

A rational person could look at the Government Accountability Office report (which said that Iraqis have met only three of 18 benchmarks they agreed to meet), look at the Jones report (which said that it would be "prudent" to change the U.S. role and reduce the U.S. "footprint" in Iraq) and listen to Gen. David Petraeus (who apparently believes that the security gains made by the "surge" so far are so fragile that they'll fall apart if more than, say, 4,000 or so of the 160,000 U.S. troops now in Iraq leave early next year) and conclude that the war -- or even just the "surge" -- isn't something the United States ought to be funding anymore.

And having made that assessment, a rational person could decide that he or she will vote for more funding for the war only if that funding is tied to a timeline for withdrawal. Yes, the president would probably veto such legislation. But if Democrats don't cave in at that point -- as they did the last time supplemental funding for Iraq was on the table -- that just means that Bush doesn't get the money he needs for his war. Do the Democrats have the numbers to override Bush's veto? No, Hoyer's probably right about that. But the fact is, Bush can't fund the war himself, or at least not for very long. At some point, he needs an affirmative vote from Congress, giving him the funds to continue. And if Congress won't give that to him without a timeline, well, at some point, Bush, not Congress, would have to be the one who blinks.

Will that happen? Of course it won't. But it won't be because the Democrats lack a veto-proof majority. It's because too many of them lack the courage of their convictions; they'll say that the war is going badly -- maybe even that it's "lost" -- but they won't take the political risk of saying, "We're not going to pay for it anymore."

Maybe Harry Reid gets some kind of bipartisan bill out of this, although seeking compromise with the Republicans on the war has so far proved to be a sucker's mission, and there's a risk that Reid loses Democrats as he starts trying to accommodate Republicans. As Sen. Chris Dodd tells the Post, "Rather than picking up votes, by removing the deadline to get our troops out of Iraq, you have lost this Democrat's vote."

But let's just assume for the moment that Reid picks up some Republicans and holds together enough Democrats and Congress produces some kind of veto-proof bipartisan bill that requires the president to begin writing a plan for withdrawing troops from Iraq. Really, who cares? If Republicans won't jam Bush with a timeline, they're not going to jam him with a requirement that he write any kind of binding plan for withdrawal, are they?

No, the best "compromise" Democrats can hope to get is one that has Bush agreeing to -- or congressional Republicans forcing on him -- some sort of obligation to write some kind of nonbinding plan for withdrawal. But the thing is, we already know what such a plan will look like: The realities of the strained military mean that the U.S. is going to have to dial back its presence in Iraq eventually. And as the Post notes today, "Many U.S. officials expect the U.S. presence in Iraq to shrink to about 130,000 troops by next August."

But let's remember this. Getting to 130,000 troops by next August just means that we're back to where we started last fall, before the surge began. We seem to remember that a lot of Democrats were calling for a troop reduction then. If they cave now, all we're doing is resetting the clock. Instead of the serious debate about troop reductions a lot of voters might have been expecting to have right after the elections in November 2006, we'll have that same debate right before the elections in November 2008.

We'll be back to zero -- only zero, in this case, is actually 130,000. The only thing that will be different then: Nearly two years will have passed, and a thousand or so more U.S. soldiers will have died.

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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Christopher Dodd D-conn. Iraq War