By E.J. Dionne, Jr.
WASHINGTON—Two things are now abundantly clear about the future of U.S. policy toward Iraq. First, majorities in both houses of Congress have lost faith in President Bush’s approach to the war. Second, the president will do all he can to resist changing his strategy by trying to split his critics into ineffectual factions.
Bush’s choice is certainly bad for opponents of the war, but it’s also bad for American foreign policy.
The president is inviting a full-scale confrontation over his war-making powers in the expectation that the Democrats’ narrow majorities will deprive them of the votes they need to win such a fight. He is ready to split the country rather than give any ground to those who question whether it’s wise to risk ensnaring American troops in a Sunni-Shiite civil war.
The challenge to critics of the war is to make the debate about Bush, not themselves, and to make clear that the president has rebuffed all efforts to pursue a bipartisan path out of Iraq, beginning with his rejection of the core recommendations of the Iraq Study Group, headed by James A. Baker III and Lee Hamilton.
Changing our policy will require a substantial Republican rebellion. The 17 House Republicans who voted for the resolution opposing the president’s surge and the seven Senate Republicans who tried to get a vote for the House-passed measure are a start.
The next steps pursued by the war’s critics must be premised on the goal of expanding this circle of Republican opposition because, as Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., put it on “Meet the Press” over the weekend, “Republican influence on the president might be more decisive than the Democratic voices.”
For now, the war’s opponents are focused on three strategies. One would be to cut off funds for the war, but there is currently no majority in either house for this. A second approach, expected to come from Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., would propose restrictions on troop deployments—for example, forbidding the redeployment of units that have been home for less than a year and imposing substantial training requirements on the troops that are sent.
The Murtha measure would at least force a much-needed debate on the damage this war has done to our armed forces and the extraordinary burdens being borne by the brave minority of Americans who serve. It would also sidestep the political damage of doing anything that could be construed by Bush’s supporters as “failing to support our troops.”
But the sense that the proposal has been crafted in part for reasons of political convenience and the intricate restrictions it would place on the military are precisely what could doom it. The war’s opponents need other options.
A third path, offered by Sens. Joseph Biden, D-Del., and Carl Levin, D-Mich., would have Congress revisit its original 2002 Iraq resolution to make clear that the war authorized then (against Saddam Hussein and what turned out to be nonexistent weapons of mass destruction) had nothing to do with putting American troops in the midst of a Muslim civil war now.
The Biden-Levin idea has the advantage of pushing Republicans who are quietly doubtful about Bush’s path out into the open. In particular, Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., who rightly called this weekend for a more bipartisan approach to Iraq, nonetheless keeps voting his party’s line in the Senate. That, in turn, enables Bush to pursue the very sort of divisive partisanship on the war that Lugar says he’s against.
Lugar and others in his party who harbor doubts about Bush’s approach must be challenged again and again to justify actions that allow the president to bull ahead by dividing his opposition.
Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., has an additional idea: Opponents of the war need to force full consideration of the original Baker-Hamilton proposals that, he said, promised to put American policy “on a trajectory to have our combat troops out of Iraq this time next year” and reflected “the center of gravity in Congress.” Whatever its flaws, the Iraq Study Group report could still serve as a focal point for sharply reducing America’s military role in Iraq before the 2008 election.
“The refusal of the administration to try to work with others to resolve this in a responsible manner has created a very polarized atmosphere,” Van Hollen said. “They’ve refused to listen to anyone else.”
That should be the central theme of the president’s critics because it’s true—and because it offers the best rallying cry for those seeking to change a disastrous policy.
E.J. Dionne Jr.‘s e-mail address is postchat(at symbol)aol.com.