Bush plays chicken with Congress.

Military analysis.
April 3 2007 6:07 PM

Who'll Blink First?

President Bush plays chicken with the Democratic Congress.

Harry Reid. Click image to expand.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid 

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.

Advertisement

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.)

TODAY IN SLATE

History

The Self-Made Man

The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.

Does Your Child Have Sluggish Cognitive Tempo? Or Is That Just a Disorder Made Up to Scare You?

Mitt Romney May Be Weighing a 2016 Run. That Would Be a Big Mistake.

Amazing Photos From Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada. Now, Journalists Can’t Even Say Her Name.

Television

See Me

Transparent is the fall’s only great new show.

Doublex

Lena Dunham, the Book

More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.

What a Juicy New Book About Diane Sawyer and Katie Couric Fails to Tell Us About the TV News Business

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada. Now, Journalists Can’t Even Say Her Name.

  News & Politics
Damned Spot
Sept. 30 2014 9:00 AM Now Stare. Don’t Stop. The perfect political wife’s loving gaze in campaign ads.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 30 2014 11:25 AM Naomi Klein Is Wrong Multinational corporations are doing more than governments to halt climate change.
  Life
Atlas Obscura
Sept. 30 2014 10:10 AM A Lovable Murderer and Heroic Villain: The Story of Australia's Most Iconic Outlaw
  Double X
Doublex
Sept. 29 2014 11:43 PM Lena Dunham, the Book More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Sept. 30 2014 10:59 AM “For People, Food Is Heaven” Boer Deng on the story behind her piece “How to Order Chinese Food.”
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 30 2014 10:48 AM One of Last Year’s Best Animated Shorts Is Finally Online for Free
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 30 2014 7:36 AM Almost Humane What sci-fi can teach us about our treatment of prisoners of war.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 30 2014 7:30 AM What Lurks Beneath the Methane Lakes of Titan?
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 28 2014 8:30 PM NFL Players Die Young. Or Maybe They Live Long Lives. Why it’s so hard to pin down the effects of football on players’ lives.