George W. Bush faces a real predicament over the congressional challenges to the war in Iraq, and it is one entirely of his own making.
This is what happens when a president dashes to war on shaky premises and false pretenses; when he buys into a theory of warfare that promises instant victory with startlingly few resources; when he demands such iron party discipline that skeptics are hounded and oversight is banned.
What happens is that, when the theory proves wrong, the war goes bad, and the opposition party wins back Congress (mainly because the war's gone bad), skeptics rise to the fore, oversight returns, a few erstwhile stalwarts jump ship—and, if he wants to keep his war going, he has to put up a convincing case for once, he has to drop the bluster in favor of bargaining and persuasion.
The thing is, this president tends to believe that bargaining and persuasion are signs of weakness and appeasement, whether the foe across the table is Kim Jong-il or Nancy Pelosi. Condoleezza Rice finally got him to make a deal with Kim Jong-il. Will he do the same with Pelosi?
In the end, he may have no choice. When the House and Senate Democrats attached a timetable for troop withdrawal into the $96 billion emergency-spending bill that funds military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, President Bush threatened to veto the entire bill, thus saddling the Democrats with charges of abandoning the troops.
Such threats used to send shivers down what remained of lawmakers' spines—but, at least so far, not this time. House Speaker Pelosi told the president to calm down, acknowledge that there's a new Congress in town, and deal with it. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid upped the ante, saying that if Bush vetoes the bill, he will urge Congress to pass a more radical measure—sponsored by Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold—that would not only impose a timetable for withdrawal but start to cut off funding now.
Bush shot back this morning with a press conference in which he made statements of extraordinary cynicism even by his considerable standards.
The Democrats, he said, are "more interested in fighting political battles in Washington than providing our troops what they need"—a remarkable accusation, given his administration's tardiness in supplying those troops with adequate armor and its scant funding for wounded veterans.
"Congress' failure to fund our troops on the front lines," he continued, "will mean that some of our military families could wait longer for their loved ones to return from the front lines, and others could see their loved ones headed back to the war sooner than they need to. That is unacceptable to me, and I believe it is unacceptable to the American people."
How many jaws dropped when the president uttered these words? It is the administration's poor planning, not any action taken or not taken by Congress, that has already accelerated troop rotations and caused precisely this heartbreaking situation, which Bush (correctly) calls "unacceptable." And it is unacceptable, by the way, not only to military families but to the military itself, especially to the Army, which is nearly breaking under the strain.
Besides, it's not only ironic but odd that Bush should be raising this issue, since if Congress were to get its way on the timetable, many of these troops would be coming home sooner and never going back.
Vice President Dick Cheney tossed in his two cents yesterday at a political fund-raiser in Alabama. "It's time," he said, "the self-appointed strategists on Capitol Hill understood a very simple concept: You cannot win a war if you tell the enemy when you're going to quit."
Three things are wrong with this surefire applause line. First, whether they're wise or foolish, the congressional Democrats are raising issues of policy, not strategy. In other words, they're acting not like "self-appointed strategists" but rather like popularly elected lawmakers.
Second, who is this "enemy" that Cheney says the timetable would be tipping off? If it's al-Qaida and the other terrorist groups in Iraq, he and Bush know very well that the House and Senate proposals allow U.S. troops involved in counterterrorism to stay in Iraq indefinitely. (The bills also exempt from withdrawal those troops involved in training Iraqi security forces, as well as those protecting and supplying U.S. workers, officials, and military personnel.)
Third, what is this business about winning the war? Does Cheney think we can win? And how is he defining the term?
In his press conference today, President Bush said the point of the U.S. strategy "is to give the Iraqi government time to reconcile, time to unify the country … to provide some breathing space for this democratically elected government to succeed."
Yet, in other news yesterday, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's most influential Shiite cleric, urged the rejection of a bill that would allow thousands of former rank-and-file members of Saddam Hussein's Baathist Party to return to government. The bill—which would have reversed the draconian de-Baathification measures that fueled much of the insurgency three years ago—was seen as a crucial step in luring Sunni Arabs to take part in the political system. Sistani's disapproval almost certainly kills its chances—and, with it, the chances of reconciliation.
So, if reconciliation isn't going to happen, owing to internal politics and pressures, then what good is the time and breathing space that American blood and treasure are providing?
In a sense, President Bush is right when he calls the congressional timetables "a political dance." But does he realize he's the one who started the music?
Sen. Hillary Clinton has a seasoned sense of what's going on. "I saw a lot of what happened when my husband had a Republican Congress," she told reporters Tuesday. "We would stake out one position, they would stake out one position. And then people would begin to try to figure out how to narrow the difference. That's what should be happening here."
The question is whether it will happen. Over the next few weeks, the showdown will escalate. It will seem like a game of highway chicken, with both drivers gunning their engines, flashing their brights, tossing things that look like steering wheels out their windows. All the while they'll know that it won't be until late May, or by some calculations late June, that their cars will collide—i.e., that funding for the war really will run out—and they'll be hoping that somebody pulls over at the last minute.
There's language in both the House and Senate bills that suggests the Democrats are looking for a compromise, looking not so much for an abrupt end to our military involvement in Iraq but rather a reassessment and redirection of our policy toward Iraq and the region. Bush has less leverage in this game than his rhetoric would seem to indicate. The question is whether he'll realize this in time—whether he'll face the music and dance.