Friday, May 25, 2007

Capitulation or compromise? Were the Democrats right to support an Iraq funding bill without a timetable for withdrawal?

By Michael J.W. Stickings

First, the facts (from WaPo, which is somewhat more balanced than it was the other day):

Congress sent President Bush a new Iraq funding bill yesterday that lacked troop withdrawal deadlines demanded by liberal Democrats, but party leaders vowed it was only a temporary setback in their efforts to bring home American troops.

War opponents dismissed the bill as a capitulation to Bush and said they would seek to hold supporters in both parties accountable. But backers said the bill's provisions -- including benchmarks for progress that the Iraqi government must meet to continue receiving reconstruction aid -- represented an assertion of congressional authority over the war that was unthinkable a few months ago.

Bush, who had vowed to veto any legislation with restrictions on troop deployments, announced he would sign the $120 billion package, which was approved 80 to 14 last night in the Senate, after a 280 to 142 House vote.

Second, what to make of it?

I find myself in some disagreement -- which may seem more substantial than it really is -- with many of my friends who, like me, oppose the Iraq War (whether for what it has become or for what it always has been). For example, our own Edward Copeland, in his first post as a co-blogger, argued persuasively, just yesterday, that the bill reflects Democratic "capitulation" on Iraq, an unwillingness to stand up to Bush on his disaster of a war. Steve Benen of The Carpetbagger Report, whom I respect as much as anyone in the blogosphere, referred to the "Dems' inexplicable retreat" and argued that they need "to start thinking like the majority party". At The Newshoggers, another of our co-bloggers, Libby Spencer, called it a "dismal Democratic Capitulation Bill" (linking to Greg Sargent at TPM Cafe). Tom Wilson called the Democrats "feckless fools," "weak, cowardly, spineless and ill-informed". MyDD's Matt Stoller called it "capitulation," too. And Taylor Marsh is "disgusted".

Another friend, Melissa McEwan of Shakesville, makes a similar case to one I've made before, and rather bluntly: "The real issue here is that the Democrats don't really want the responsibility of ending the war, because they fear Iraq is going to descend into chaos and they’re going to be blamed for it, rather than the shithead-in-chief who started the thing, mismanaged the thing, and blew it from every conceivable angle. And that’s a legitimate fear -- because, well, the media sucks, the Republicans are better at spin, and that's exactly how they'll spin it when that scenario inevitably happens. The entire catastrophic fuck-up that preceded the Dems' ending of the war will be all but forgotten, and so the Dems are trying to wrangle a way to pressure Bush into ending the war, so they can take responsibility for forcing the issue while not burdening themselves with the imminent disaster that results."

The problem, Melissa suggests, is that Bush won't be forced into anything, let alone ending the war, which means that the Democratic effort to avoid taking responsibility won't work. So the Democrats should have sent "versions of the same bill over and over and over, until it became glaringly apparent to anyone paying even the slightest bit of attention that the problem was Bush".

Okay. I get that. These are intelligent people making intelligent arguments. So how is it that (in the post linked above) I came to call the bill "a decent compromise"? Because (a) I don't think this was a victory for Bush at all -- see the case I make in that post. And I still don't think so despite the atrocious media coverage that views compromise as capitulation, as a Bush win. Because (b) the momentum on Iraq is with the Democrats. It is becoming more and more apparent that the surge isn't working. Republicans are fearfully looking ahead to '08 and increasingly abandoning the war (and Bush). Because (c) I really do think the Democrats will continue to hit Bush hard on Iraq in the months ahead. And because (d) the American people have turned against the war in huge numbers. A new CBS/NYT poll indicates that 76% of Americans think the war is going badly (at least), 47% think the war is going very badly, and only 20% think the surge is working. Meanwhile, 52% of Republicans think the war is going at least somewhat badly; this is up 16 points from April.

Bill or no bill, what Democrats need to do -- and this goes for those who support this bill and those who oppose it -- is to keep the pressure and the focus squarely on Bush, and not to let the White House and the Republican spin machine determine how Iraq is presented to the American people. So there's no timetable for withdrawal? Okay. Bush never would have agreed to one anyway. What good would it have done to keep insisting on one in legislation? Democrats can still argue for withdrawal even without a statutory timetable. Will Bush give in and withdraw the bulk of U.S. forces from Iraq? Will he effectively end the war? No, maybe not. But there will be increasing pressure from his own party, as well as from the American people, for him to change course. He is isolated already, but the isolation will only deepen. Could Bush withdraw and then blame the Democrats for what has gone wrong? Sure, just as he'd blame the Iraqis for not stepping up and taking control of their country, as if that were ever likely, just as he'd blame Iran for supporting the insurgency. But everyone knows, or should know, that this war is his war, that he is responsible for what has gone wrong (and what may yet happen, such as post-withdrawal chaos). As long as the Democrats tell the truth, they'll be fine.

When it comes to the war, I don't substantially disagree with those I link to and quote above. (See Taylor's post, in particular.) And I do recognize the appeal of standing firm and demanding a timetable for withdrawal in bill after bill, veto after veto. There is risk in compromise. But I don't think this was capitulation. If anything, it was political expediency. Is that noble? Is that what we would want in a perfect world? No and no. But it will now be up to the Democrats to prove that this was indeed a decent, and useful, compromise. And they can do that not just through political theater, which is what much of this has been, but by continuing to make the case that this disastrous war needs to end as soon as possible.

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