Thursday, April 26, 2007

War and political theater

By Michael J.W. Stickings

I won't comment much on this tonight -- I'll have much more to say in the coming days -- but here's what happened:

The Senate today approved an Iraq spending bill that would force troop withdrawals to begin as early as July 1, dismissing President Bush's veto threat even as party leaders and the White House launch talks on the next phase of the increasingly high-stakes war debate.

The 51-46 vote was a triumph for Democrats, who just weeks ago had questioned the political wisdom of a veto showdown over Iraq with the commander-in-chief. But Democrats are hesitant no more. And now that withdrawal language has passed both houses of Congress, even Republicans concede that Bush won't get the spending bill with no strings attached as he has demanded.

Bush is expected to veto the bill early next week, but in the meantime, bipartisan negotiations have already started on phase two.

That's right. A veto is inevitable -- Bush will not allow himself to be constrained by an enemy Congress, as he sees it -- but the Democrats' firm stand also means that compromise is likely. Just so long as it's the right compromise. I don't think that meeting Republicans in the middle on Iraq is the way to go. (What would that even mean?) But if the compromise includes benchmarks, for example, rather than a firm timetable for withdrawal, then it might just be acceptable. Besides, I'm not so sure that a timetable is a great idea. Given that Iraq could descend into chaos and genocide post-withdrawal, even with some U.S. forces still there, a timetable would likely ensure that Democrats would end up taking much of the blame for making Iraq even worse than it is now, even if they don't deserve it. In other words, this is one battle the Democrats may not want to win.

It seems to me that a better approach would be to press for phased withdrawal alongside firm benchmarks -- and to wait for the next president, hopefully a Democrat. This would force both the White House and the war's Republican supporters to defend a status quo strategy that isn't likely to make much of a difference and that almost certainly won't succeed -- and this is precisely what Bush, McCain, Giuliani, and others are doing. Indeed, while Democrats in Congress, along with some of their Republican sympathizers, are looking for an alternative to Bush's failed policies, the White House continues to look as if it doesn't have a clue either about the situation in Iraq or the clear preferences of the American people. And, in desperation, and with nothing else to fall back on, the rhetoric coming from the warmongers is increasingly extremist. For example, White House mouthpiece Dana Perino today called the bill "defeatist legislation that insists on a date for surrender". This is the key Republican talking point -- we've already heard it from DeLay and Giuliani, among others -- but it won't have much traction, not if the Democrats play this properly. And that means providing both leadership and an alternative course of action without demanding so much that they themselves could end up being sucked into the vortex of blame in response to this lost war.

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