Kick the Can II

Yes, I’m discouraged. I said this morning that I didn’t expect to like the new appropriation bill, but it is worse than I had feared. There are benchmarks, but according to everything I’m hearing the penalties are on paper only. Timetables are gone; I expected that. But I was hoping the bill would be tougher on the benchmarks. The new bill provides that foreign aid will be withheld if the Iraqi government misses benchmarks, but Bush can decide to give the Iraqis the money anyway.

I agree with what Lane Hudson says here:

The Democratic Leadership needs to understand something. In November, the American people elected you to control the United States Congress.

That’s a big deal. The number one thing they want you to do is change the course of the war in Iraq.

Thus far, you’re failing. Now, you’ve got your own time table. If you aren’t able to pass meaningful legislation in September that will begin the process of bringing our troops home, then you will lose credibility with us, the American People.

John Amato at Crooks and Liars has a video of the David Obey/Nancy Pelosi press announcement this afternoon. Note that Pelosi says she is not likely to vote for the bill herself. Obey says,

The practical result of this would be that we would transfer the debate on the Iraqi War from the ’07 Supplemental to the the ’08 regular defense bill and the ’08 supplemental appropriations bill for defense. So we will continue to be pressing the issue and I would predict that in the coming months there would be more and more people coming our way in terms of demanding a change in that Iraqi policy.

I’m glad that John also quotes from Paul Krugman’s brilliant column, “A Hostage Situation.

There are two ways to describe the confrontation between the U.S. Congress and the Bush administration over funding for the Iraq surge. You can pretend that it’s a normal political dispute. Or you can see it for what it really is: a hostage situation, in which a beleaguered President George W. Bush, barricaded in the White House, is threatening dire consequences for innocent bystanders – the troops – if his demands aren’t met.

If this were a normal political dispute, Democrats in Congress would clearly hold the upper hand: By a huge margin, Americans say they want a timetable for withdrawal, and by a large margin they also say they trust Congress, not Bush, to do a better job handling the situation in Iraq.

But this isn’t a normal political dispute. Bush isn’t really trying to win the argument on the merits. He’s just betting that the people outside the barricade care more than he does about the fate of those innocent bystanders.

I sincerely do not believe Bush would cave in and bring the troops home if funds were cut off. I think he would just usurp more authority the Constitution doesn’t give him and siphon money from other parts of the budget. He’s done it before, you know. And if anyone has to economize, it would be the troops. This really is a hostage situation.

This evening lot of people are, correctly, pointing out that Bush’s poll numbers are hitting new lows. Most Dems (maybe a few in conservative districts are exceptions) shouldn’t have to fear Bush any more. But I don’t think poll numbers tell the whole story.

First, the boy ain’t right. Get this from Stewart M. Powell of Hearst Newspapers:

The Bush administration is quietly on track to nearly double the number of combat troops in Iraq this year, an analysis of Pentagon deployment orders showed Monday. … the total number of U.S. troops in Iraq could increase from 162,000 now to more than 200,000 — a record-high number — by the end of the year.

Plus, Brian Ross and Richard Esposito report:

The CIA has received secret presidential approval to mount a covert “black” operation to destabilize the Iranian government, current and former officials in the intelligence community tell the Blotter on

It’s like he can’t get enough war. Absolutely terrifying.

For another perspective, see Michael Tomasky at The Guardian web site:

First, this development is completely unsurprising, since everyone has known for some time that there was nothing else the Democrats could do. Back in January, it was clear that, whatever the Democrats decided to do with their new congressional majorities, there was one thing they could not accomplish: stop funding for troops already in the field.

Iraq is Bush’s war and Bush’s failure. But if his Democratic opponents had stopped funding the war, Republicans would have argued that the fiasco was suddenly the Democrats’ responsibility and failure. Pundits would have drawn immediate parallels to the way a previous Democratic-led congress de-funded Vietnam, and the party would have lost its standing in this fight.

They might have been up to taking the chance of de-funding if they’d had a united caucus. But they don’t, not remotely. The key number here is 61. That’s the number of Democrats in the House of Representatives who represent districts that Bush carried in 2004 (by contrast, only eight Republicans represent districts that John Kerry won). Many of these 61 are scared to death that they could lose their seats in 2008, and with good reason – the Republicans are targeting them and are intent on winning the 15 seats they need to regain control of the House.

De-funding the war would – there’s no escaping it – put some of those 61 at risk. If you’re thinking long term and you want a congress that might actually do responsible things about healthcare and global warming and even Iraq in the future, then now just isn’t the time for the Democrats to force this issue.

I think there’s something to what Tomasky says. Another way to put this is that the current effort isn’t just about Iraq. It is about rebuilding congressional power and balancing our constitutional system. It’s that very imbalance that got us into Iraq in the first place. The Bush Administration used September 11 and a servile Republican Congress to destroy the structures through which the government normally exercises power. From that perspective, the goal is not withdrawal from Iraq, but a restoration of congressional power, from which would come a withdrawal.

On the other hand, all over the blogosphere today people who had to be coaxed into supporting Dems in the midterm elections last year are now stomping off in disgust. A lot of them will either spend 2008 in sullen pouting, or they’ll run into the waiting arms of Ralph Nader, which is the same thing as turning the nation back over to the Republicans.

Dems in Congress may want to be cautious, but they don’t have a lot of time. If they can’t score some victories against Bush by this fall, I think they’re going to lose support and possibly congressional seats next year.

Kick the Can

David Ignatius writes in today’s Washington Post:

President Bush and his senior military and foreign policy advisers are beginning to discuss a “post-surge” strategy for Iraq that they hope could gain bipartisan political support. The new policy would focus on training and advising Iraqi troops rather than the broader goal of achieving a political reconciliation in Iraq, which senior officials recognize may be unachievable within the time available.

In other words, they’re warming over the “strategy” from ca. 2004-2005.

The revamped policy, as outlined by senior administration officials, would be premised on the idea that, as the current surge of U.S. troops succeeds in reducing sectarian violence, America’s role will be increasingly to help prepare the Iraqi military to take greater responsibility for securing the country.

“Sectarian violence is not a problem we can fix,” said one senior official. “The Iraqi government needs to show that it can take control of the capital.” U.S. officials offer a somber evaluation of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki: His Shiite-dominated government is weak and sectarian, but they have concluded that, going forward, there is no practical alternative.

I concur with the Carpetbagger’s analysis:

Indeed, reading Ignatius’s piece is a thoroughly frustrating exerience. He explains in one sentence that the surge strategy is predicated on reducing sectarian violence, and then explains in the very next sentence that “sectarian violence is not a problem we can fix.”

In the next paragraph, Ignatius notes that the Maliki government is overtly sectarian, which leads to additional violence, and the Bush administration is content to empower the Maliki government further, in order to help reduce sectarian violence.

You can read the whole bleeping column if you like. Essentially, there’s not a dadblamed thing in the “post-surge plan” that the Bushies haven’t been talking about since 2004. This doesn’t surprise me. What amazes me (and I realize it shouldn’t) is the gee-whiz earnestness with which Ignatius presents the “new” plan as if it really were new. Does he not notice it isn’t? Does he think we won’t?

Ignatius compares the “new” plan to the Baker Commission recommendations. But I’d be willing to bet the “new” plan is a rewrite of the “Strategy for Victory” document the Bushies unveiled with such fanfare in 2005. Even now Bushies are huddled in the West Wing, brainstorming new packaging concepts for the old product.

The Baker recommendations weren’t innovative. As I wrote last December, the whole point of the Baker Commission was to provide Bush with a way out of the Iraq hole he’d dug for himself.

Most analysis of the ISG report that I’ve seen says pretty plainly that it gives the President about as much butt covering — a way to exit Iraq without looking like a flipflopper — as he is likely to get. In fact, it’s obvious that the report was crafted more as a political gift to Bush than an actual Best Possible Plan for getting out of Iraq (clearly, it isn’t). I can’t think of any president in American history who has been given such a gift when he’s been in trouble.

As Jonathan Chait explains,

    In return for these considerations, the commission generously avoided revisiting the whole question of who got us into this fiasco and how. As the Washington Post put it, “The panel appeared to steer away from language that might inflame the Bush administration.” Of course, “inflame” is a word typically associated with street mobs or other irrational actors. The fact that the president can be “inflamed” is no longer considered surprising enough to merit comment.

If Bush had more smarts than he has narcissism he’d find a way to embrace the ISG report and work with what supporters in Congress he still has. Instead, it’s obvious he’s going to blow it off and continue to do whatever it is he’s doing.

The “surge” plan was Bush’s way of stealing thunder from the Baker commission. I sincerely believe that was the whole point of it. When Bush realized he was being maneuvered into ending his war, he whipped together some generals and others who would endorse doing just the opposite of what Baker et al. proposed, and he played that like a trump card. Whether the escalation would succeed was never the point.

All the talk about Republicans withdrawing support from the war in September must have Bush spooked. Now that he thinks he might be backed into a corner once the “surge” doesn’t work as advertised, he’ll make some show of accepting the Baker Commission recommendations. Except that it won’t be those recommendations — as tepid as they were — but some substitute made with dextrose, sorbitan monostearate and artificial flavors, and labeled “with real Baker Commission taste!”

And if Dems don’t accept the “new” plans, they’ll be accused of being “partisan.”

See also Sam Rosenfeld.


Yesterday an Associated Press story said, in effect, the Dems were capitulating to Bush’s demands for a condition-free Iraq appropriation bill. I didn’t comment on it because I noticed there was no corroboration from other news sources, which made me think the story was inaccurate.

Sure enough; the AP jumped the gun a tad. Today Carl Hulse of the New York Times says that nothing has been decided.

After an evening meeting of top House Democrats, the party canceled a session at which they were to present the elements of a new war spending proposal to the rank and file in anticipation of a vote this week.

“There is no deal,” said Representative David R. Obey, the Wisconsin Democrat who is the chairman of the Appropriations Committee and is one of the lead negotiators over the war money. …

… Democratic leaders remain reluctant to cede too much ground to the president in the fight over financing and expect many Democrats to oppose the legislation if it is viewed as too weak. But party leaders are also uneasy about being blamed for withholding any money from the military and have said repeatedly in recent days that they intend to send Mr. Bush a bill he will sign before leaving for the Memorial Day holiday.

This might be a good time to contact your Congress critter.

Robert Naiman wrote yesterday

Like earlier articles containing basically the same information, the article doesn’t cite any named sources, nor does it provide significant detail, suggesting that the anonymous announcement may be, to some extent, a trial balloon. If the announcement unleashes a tsunami of protest, leaders have left themselves room to back away from it. Hopefully, this is exactly what will happen.

Now’s the time to howl, folks.

Whatever happens: I have thought all along it was unlikely this particular bill would bring about the final showdown. I’ve seen it as just one of a series of votes that would chip away at whatever it is that still props up President Bush and eventually enable Congress to act without him to bring home the troops. I think it is unlikely that whatever appropriation bill Congress cranks out next will be one we like very much. But this is not the end. What’s most important now is momentum; moving the yard markers, as it were. If the final bill lays some groundwork for future progress, then the fight isn’t over. There are a number of other Iraq votes coming up that will provide new opportunities to do battle.

Matt Stoller at MyDD has some comments I agree with —

…it’s worth pointing out that there are a number of problems with the Democratic Party so far, problems which had been predicted (and which are unavoidable). Most progressive activists realized that 2006 was going to strengthen the progressive movement, but it would not put us in charge. No, the people in charge are the Steve Elmendorf’s, the lobbyists, and the single issue group leaders. These aren’t insane Republicans, but they are ‘little c’ conservative, cautious, and driven by the need for exceptional amounts of reassurance before embarking on any strategy. Some of them are progressive, some of them are not, but mostly what they are is opaque. There is little transparency on how decisions are made, and you can see the effects: no minimum wage increase, no lobbying reform, no prescription drug negotiations, a questionable and confusing announcement of more NAFTA-style policies, a refusal to follow up on ignored subpoenas, and no end to the war in Iraq.

That said, we need to keep working to change this state of affairs, and there is a lot of hope. Reid has a very unreliable caucus of 51 Senators, with a large chunk that pull away at the hint of anything controversial or progressive, while Pelosi has to deal with a large Blue Dog caucus. Nevertheless, both passed extremely strong Iraq legislation, and there’s a lot of oversight going on. The Republicans are bleeding public support, and in 2008 Democrats can rip a chunk of their voters to our side.

And then there’s the McGovern amendment, which was not supposed to break 100 votes. It got 171 votes, including stalwart cautious operatives like Rahm Emanuel. That’s very very good. Still, I think it’s important to recognize right now that the Democratic conventional wisdom is in flux. There’s polling that suggests opposition to Bush and the Iraq war is the right strategy, and 171 members of Congress recognized that. Only 59 Democrats voted against it. That’s not just a majority of the caucus, that’s 74% of the caucus. This is an antiwar party. But it’s not a disciplined antiwar party.

Before the midterms I spent a lot of time arguing with people that it would be worth it to get a Dem majority in Congress even if most of the Dems in Congress were limp as socks. I still believe that. The Wimpifying of the Dem party was years — nay, decades — in the making, and it’s going to take a lot more than one election cycle to mold them into a party that’s more to our liking.

I get frustrated with the Dems, but in some ways I get even more frustrated with the leftie activists and bloggers who are already screaming about sellouts and declaring that all the wrangling over this bill has been a complete waste of time. Remember, the real problem is bigger than just Iraq. Iraq is just one front in a bigger war. There is a point at which bridge-burning and earth-scorching become self-destructive. Dems in Washington are over-cautious on that point, but it’s possible some in the base are not cautious enough.