On Iraq, Congress Should Put Up or Shut Up

By: Greg C. Reeson

Since the President first unveiled his new strategy for Iraq on January 10th, there has been no shortage of critics claiming the plan was doomed to failure, even before the Defense Department began to work on its implementation. Using the cover of Article II, Section 2 of the Constitution, which vests in the President sole authority as commander-in-chief, several Senators have claimed that they are powerless to stop the President’s “escalation” of the war, and that their only recourse is to express their discontent through a nonbinding resolution.

Before continuing, I must take issue with the notion that the President’s plan to deploy an additional 21,500 troops to Baghdad and al-Anbar Province is somehow an “escalation” of the war. Since the invasion in March 2003, troop levels have risen and fallen in response to the level of violence in the country. As an Army Captain in Iraq in 2003 and 2004, I sat through numerous briefings that talked about force levels and where we needed to be in response to the situation on the ground.

In early 2005, as the insurgency was really beginning to hit its stride, American forces in Iraq numbered around 130,000. In late 2005, in preparation for the December elections, troop levels increased to nearly 160,000 with the expectation that violence would spike as the democratic process played itself out. Throughout 2006, force levels were steady at between 120,000 and 140,000. Currently, the number of troops in Iraq sits at about 130,000.

The point of all this is that the President’s plan to deploy additional troops is nothing more than a response to the violence in Baghdad that will still leave force levels lower than they have been in the past. It is an attempt to provide some level of security so that Iraqis can work toward a political solution that will solve the country’s problems.

But it’s time to move on. The Senate will soon consider several nonbinding resolutions that claim to demonstrate the will of the Congress and the American people that we not send more soldiers to fight and die in Iraq. Senators Biden, Levin and Hagel have proposed one of these Congressional condemnations, already passed by committee. Senators Warner, Coleman, Collins, and Nelson have proposed a similar measure that will be taken up very soon. The Hill has reported that Senator Clinton is also preparing her own version that would cap the number of troops at this month’s level unless President Bush seeks authorization from Congress for an increase.

Since these resolutions are nonbinding, none carries the same weight as would a law passed by Congress in an attempt to reduce troop levels or change the conduct of the war. So what’s the point? What are they trying to accomplish with these symbolic votes?

It’s really quite simple. These Senators know that any such resolution will be discounted by the President and will do nothing to change his plan to deploy more troops. What has unfolded over the past two weeks is nothing less than political posturing to enhance individual power and influence at the expense of an unpopular President. Some of the opposing Senators are making a run for the White House in 2008. Some will merely be fighting for their political survival. By putting some distance between themselves and President Bush they can appeal to public discontent without taking any substantive action of their own.

The problem with this approach is that it undermines the President in the performance of his Constitutional duties as commander-in-chief of the armed forces. If the President’s strategy is to have any chance at all of succeeding, it must have the support of the Congress. If Iraq’s leaders perceive Mr. Bush as having his hands tied, they will not ally themselves with us to establish security and move their country forward, rightly suspecting that they cannot count on continued American support. Without at least the perception of confidence at home, Mr. Bush’s strategy will indeed fail.

None of the Senators in open opposition to the President’s plan wants to be responsible for what happens in Iraq because of the potential political consequences involved. But if they truly believe, deep in their hearts that what the President is doing is wrong for this country, they have an obligation to the American people to stop wasting their time with nonbinding resolutions that are meaningless and to exercise the power granted them by the Constitution.

Senator Edward Kennedy is trying to lead the Congress down this path. He wants to use the power of the purse to require the President to get additional funds from Congress before he can add more troops. But Congress could go one step further. They could take action equal to the rhetoric they have been pushing to the American people. They could put their money where their mouths are and cut off the funds for a war they claim is unnecessary, reckless, and possibly illegal. Unless they are willing to do that, they need to back off and let the President do his job as commander-in-chief.

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