War Stories

Listen Up, Mr. President

Is Congress using the Iraq bills to send a message?

Illustration by Robert Neubecker. Click image to expand.

Two myths have sprung up around the House and Senate bills that require President Bush to withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq. One is that he would have to pull out all the troops. The other is that, if Bush vetoes the final bill (as he is nearly certain to do), the war—and all other military activities—would grind to a halt, leaving the troops in the lurch, bereft of basic ammo and supplies.

Both myths are false, the product of spin.

The Pentagon has several ways to reroute money if a veto locks the emergency-spending bill in temporary limbo while Congress goes on Easter recess. And both chambers’ bills leave leeway for quite a lot of U.S. troops to stay in Iraq indefinitely—though, true, there would be fewer than there are now, and they would perform less-ambitious missions.

Beyond this, the House version of the bill offers a political-military strategy toward Iraq that the White House might do well to emulate—as a general approach, if not in all its details.

First, let’s deal with the consequences of a veto. The congressional demands for a troop withdrawal are merely sections of the much larger bill to provide $96 billion in emergency spending for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. A veto would kill not only the language on withdrawal but also the $96 billion.

Administration officials invoke the time when President Bill Clinton vetoed the Republican Congress’ budget and House Speaker Newt Gingrich walked away, forcing the federal government to shut down—a series of events that politically tarnished the Republicans in the long run. Officials warn that the same thing will happen to the congressional Democrats if they force Bush to shut down the war.

That’s not going to happen. A story in today’s edition of the Hill outlines several ways the Pentagon could still get funds to the troops. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates could “reprogram” money from one account to another. He could shift “unobligated balances” from the operations and maintenance accounts. If worst comes to worst, he could invoke the Civil War-era Feed and Forage Act, which allows him to allocate money for the troops’ basic provisions without congressional approval.

Finally, it seems the Pentagon’s war chest won’t go bare until the beginning of June. If Bush vetoes the emergency-spending bill and Congress goes on recess till mid-April, it will be an administrative hassle but not a disaster.

But more to the point, what’s in these bills? Exactly what would they force Bush to do?

The Senate bill does take out the cleaver. No later than 120 days after the bill’s enactment, the president “shall commence the phased redeployment of United States forces from Iraq,” with “the goal of redeploying” all combat troops by March 31, 2008.

Even so, there are some loopholes. First, there are those two words I’ve italicized above: The March 2008 deadline is put forth as not the requirement but rather “the goal.”

Second, the bill allows “a limited number” of combat forces to stay “that are essential for the following purposes: (A) Protecting United States and coalition personnel and infrastructure. (B) Training and equipping Iraqi forces. (C) Conducting targeted counter-terrorism operations.”

Force-protection, infrastructure, training, counterterrorism—these missions could justify keeping at least 50,000 American troops in Iraq for a long, long time.

The clear intent of this provision—and this is true in the House bill as well—is not so much to end the Iraq war but to return to the course that U.S. commanders were taking late last year, before Bush ordered the “surge” in force levels and shifted to a more active counterinsurgency plan.

But there’s a slight loophole in even this provision. The bill allows Bush to keep in Iraq not only troops that perform those three allowed missions but also troops “that are essential for” the purposes of those missions. It would be a stretch to claim that, say, maintaining the counterinsurgency surge is “essential” to train Iraqis or to defeat al-Qaida; but if Bush were somehow forced to swallow this bill, he could make the argument that all the troops were “essential” for the more modest missions and dare Congress to disagree. It’s a less loopy claim than some of Alberto Gonzales’ parsings of the Constitution.

Still, the essence of the Senate bill is this: Lower America’s profile, scale back its mission, turn the bulk of the fighting over to the Iraqis, and get most of our own troops out by March 2008 or thereabouts—period.

The House bill is a bit subtler and at least attempts to link the U.S. military commitment to Iraq’s political stability. It lays out specific benchmarks that the Iraqi government needs to meet—the same sort of benchmarks that President Bush himself has listed in the past.

By July 1, 2007, Bush must tell Congress whether the Iraqis have met some of these benchmarks (for instance, whether they’ve made “substantial progress” in deploying security forces to Baghdad, disarming militias, and eradicating terrorist safe havens).

By Oct. 1, he must report on whether the Iraqis have met further benchmarks (enacted an oil-revenue law, scheduled provincial and local elections, reformed de-Baathification laws, amended the constitution, and begun spending the $10 billion in Iraqi revenue for reconstruction projects).

If Bush reports that the Iraqis have not met these benchmarks, or if he doesn’t issue a report at all, then the secretary of defense “shall commence” the redeployment immediately and complete it within 180 days—in other words, by March 30, 2008, the same date as in the Senate bill, except this is a deadline, not a “goal.”

However, if Bush reports that the Iraqis have met their benchmarks, then the redeployment doesn’t need to begin until March 1, 2008, and has another 180 days—the end of August 2008—to finish.

In other words, if there’s insufficient political progress by this fall, we start pulling out right away. If there’s lots of political progress, we stay till the following spring, then start pulling out.

(As with the Senate’s version, the House bill lets troops stay indefinitely in Iraq for certain purposes: protecting U.S. citizens, going after members of “terrorist organizations with global reach,” and training the Iraqi security forces.)

One could argue that the House bill’s distinguishing features—specifying benchmarks and holding out the lure of a six-month extension of the current U.S. troop presence if the Iraqis meet them—are a tease and a ruse. If Iraqi officials can’t disarm the militias or reconcile factions now, an extra six months—followed by a withdrawal—isn’t likely to do the trick. Or if the extension is seen as an incentive, a reward for good governance, doesn’t that suggest that the Iraqis want us to stay? If they meet the benchmarks by October, might that mean the surge is working? If so, should the withdrawal proceed? Maybe the success warrants a reassessment.

All this is moot, of course, since Bush almost certainly will veto this bill, and the Democrats don’t have anywhere near the two-thirds majority needed to override the veto.

So, what’s the point of these bills? Is it to put the Democratic Congress on record as favoring a (sort of) withdrawal? Is it a ploy to force Bush and the Republicans to endorse an unpopular war one more time and thus bury themselves in a still deeper hole?

Yes, probably, to some degree.

But the House bill can also be read as a road map that Bush might fruitfully follow. Bush has laid out benchmarks that the Iraqi government must meet; they’re pretty much the same as those laid out in the House bill. But Bush didn’t attach any penalties if the Iraqis didn’t meet them—or any rewards if they did. Without any incentives, the Iraqis will be inclined to take the easiest path—and do nothing that requires extraordinary measures or risks.

If Bush were shrewd, he would use the congressional bills themselves as potential penalties. He would thrust the documents in the faces of the Iraqi leaders and say, “This is what will happen if you guys don’t shape up. I don’t want to go this route, but the Democrats are going to make me. I’m not fully in control.”

It’s an old technique. Call it playing chicken or good cop/bad cop. Sometimes it works.

Maybe someone in the Bush administration is playing the game. Maybe some of the Democrats put forth the bill in the hopes that someone would play the game.

There’s a curious clause in the Senate bill, stating that the troop withdrawal “will be implemented as part of a comprehensive diplomatic, political, and economic strategy that includes sustained engagement with Iraq’s neighbors and the international community for the purpose of working collectively to bring stability to Iraq.”

This is odd language to put in an emergency-spending bill. Congress can’t force any president to adopt a specific diplomatic strategy or to talk with a country’s neighbors.

The point of this clause, like the point of the bills generally, may be to shake Bush’s lapels and get him to listen, to do something sensible—if not to end the war (neither bill really seeks to do quite that), at least to offer the Iraqi government some incentives to devise a political settlement and, more important still, to draw the neighboring governments into a diplomatic forum that might keep the conflagration from spreading if Iraq goes up in smoke.