Stories of the Surge

A(nother) depressing week in wartime Washington




Washington is shuttered for the day; there are some cities where only a third or a quarter of office drones ditch work for Martin Luther King's birthday, and this isn't one of them.


Five days earlier the president grabbed the news cycle with both hands and announced, after weeks of buildup, that he was going to kick over Jim Baker's sandcastle and send more troops to Iraq. Not 20,000 troops, like the rubes were expecting; nope, a full 21,500. And if it turns out that 21,501 more troops were what we needed to transmogrify Iraq into Switzerland, that'll be a shame, but at least we tried. The whole, seemingly unstoppable sequence of events was giving Democrats an extremely gloomy day off.


"The people put us in power because they want an end to this war," Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich says.


Kucinich is frustrated, and understandably so. He ran for president in 2004 on a crystal-clear anti-war platform, and was laughed off the stage by the city's pundit class. He watched the Democrats wrestle Congress from Republicans in large part because of that war's unpopularity. Two years later the White House is sending more troops to Iraq, he's running for president on an anti-war platform, and he's being laughed off the stage by pundits.


"It's almost as if the November elections never happened," Kucinich says. "The default position of the Democratic Party is to stay in Iraq. You win the election and then you take the war off the table? You promise not to defund the war, which you are constitutional empowered to do? I fundamentally reject that, and I will do everything in my power to stop this war."


How much power does Kucinich have? Better question: Who actually has the power to contest the troop surge when Congress gets its next funding request in February? Rep. John Murtha, the congressman celebrating his 33rd year in Washington by chairing the Defense subcommittee of Appropriations, has informed all askers that he's going to conduct hearings when the question comes up "I don't know how many troops they can get in the field before we get our bill up and passed in the Congress," he told the Washington Post.




Congress is gaveled back into session, and the Democrats race to the podiums to start debating Iraq. Kidding! The majority is actually 30-some hours into its "First 100 Hours" agenda, gearing up for a debate on student loan interest rates and how much to slash them.


"I think the debate will be different this year," says Rep. Walter Jones. A Republican from North Carolina, Jones became notorious in 2003 for replacing the House cafeteria's "French fries," with all-American, flag-salutin', Toby Keith-lovin' "freedom fries." Since then he's become his party's most stalwart, emotional opponent of the war. He writes letters to the families of troops killed in Iraq: "Two page letters, and I put my signature on both pages."


Jones is working with allies in both parties on legislation that could end the war; he's supported Kucinich's calls to stop funding it, which would effectively force the military to withdraw. Before the midterms, Republicans painted a dark picture of a cut-off, with visions of troops stranded in the desert grasping empty rifles and shredded body armor. That's still the tone of the debate today among Republican leaders and pundits, but Jones swears a growing number of congressmen are giving up on the game.


"Many of my friends who lost on November 7 lost because of George Bush," Jones says. "I know Republicans who are frustrated. They didn't speak out before, but this is a debate that should have happened a couple years ago. You going to see a bipartisan group of us start asking these questions."




Today is Muhammad Ali's birthday, which will be officially commemorated by the House, and Non-Binding Resolution Day, which probably won't be. Sen. Chris Dodd, a Democratic presidential candidate expected to drop out sometime later this year, introduces a bill that would cap the number of troops in Iraq at the level they maintained on Jan. 16. (Presumably, he won't be resurrecting the troops killed after this date.) But he loses the news cycle to three senators with impeccable foreign policy cred and a skill for attracting the media.


Delaware Sen. Joe Biden is the only one of the three senators running for president, and he quietly battles Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel for the spotlight. With some pinch-hitting from Michigan's Carl Levin, they propose a resolution that does absolutely nothing. The resolution is non-binding; it declares "the U.S. strategy and presence on the ground in Iraq can only be sustained with the support of the American people and bipartisan support from Congress." That's true; the resolution basically sustains the current strategy, surge included.


Hagel and the Democrats are literally chased out of the room by another bipartisan group with an even bigger star: Sen. Hillary Clinton. She proposes another bill, echoing Dodd's "cap" with an ultimatum on further action in Iraq: "Require the Administration to meet additional conditions for success in Iraq, including the assumption of greater responsibilities by the Iraqi government within six months." And if this doesn't get through the Senate (Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has pledged to filibuster any threats to war funding), no problem: Clinton endorses the non-binding resolution.

The most striking element of the press conferences is the way they squeezed a third Democratic event out of the news. At 2 p.m., the leaders of the year-old House Out of Iraq Caucus propose a binding resolution that would rescind Congress's 2002 authorization for the Iraq war, prohibit any further funding, and strike any plans to build bases in the country.


"During his weekly radio address on Saturday," says Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.), "the President challenged those of us who disagree with him to offer a plan of our own. Today, we stand before you, and the American public, to take up his challenge."


I ask a Republican leadership aide about that plan. I don't hear a lot of angst.


"A non-binding resolution may have enough votes to pass because it's meaningless and simply political," the aide says. "You take that extra step and put out a bill that does cut funding, and at the end of the vote, it would go down in flames. It's one thing to get on the stump and throw a bunch of political rhetoric around. It's another thing entirely to cut off funds for Americans who wear our uniforms."


They don't have the votes to pass it? "They definitely do not."


The Republicans are answering the flurry of Democratic Iraq "plans" with a bill put forward by Texas Rep. Sam Johnson -- a former P.O.W. -- and endorsed by House Majority Leader John Boehner. It would prohibit Congress from cutting funds for more troops in a combat. Republicans expect it to get to the floor, but not pass. One of the non-binding anti-surge resolutions might reach the floor and get Republican votes, but that won't change the debate.


"If they put up a non-binding resolution," the aide jokes, "you'll have to coin a new phrase. 'Cut and run' won't work anymore. I don't know. Call it 'sit and bitch.'''



Newspapers, networks, and blogs have created lists of all the Iraq bills and resolutions on the table; by most counts, there are five. Tom Andrews, the former Maine congressman who is now the national director of Win Without War, has spent the week lobbying Congress in person and on television to come up with a way to block the surge. "People did not vote for a Democratic Congress so they could pass words and phrases that are not binding," Andrews says.


How does the attitude on the Hill compare to the attitude when Win Without War launched, when Democrats were meekly approving the original Iraq War resolution?


"It's night and day. In 2002 there was a general view that a vote to support the president was the safe vote. People remembered the first Gulf War; they thought that worked out okay. Democrats were concerned about looking soft on defense, and they said 'let's shore up our credibility by voting for this war.'"


But are the Democrats actually committed to stopping the surge or ending the war?


"One of the ways we will get an indication of that is Congress's attitude on Iran."


At 11 a.m., a broad group of Democratic and Republican House members were debating that precise question. Walter Jones is holding court in the press room where the Out of Iraq Caucus presented its bill on Wednesday, and he shares the microphone with Democrats from Massachusetts to Hawaii and Republicans from Maryland's Wayne Gilchrest to Texas's Ron Paul. Jones and his allies are introducing a binding resolution that would force President Bush to ask Congress for authorization of any military attack on Iran.


"I want to recognize Walter Jones as the conscience of this Congress," Hawaii Democrat Neil Abercrombie says. "If anyone represents what it means to represent the people of your district, it is Walter Jones."


Abercrombie might be revealing more than he intended. One question Democrats have trouble answering is what they would do if a Democratic president was conducting policy in Iraq. It was President Bill Clinton, after all, who bombed Iraq multiple times during his presidency, over the opposition of Republicans like Tom DeLay and with the support of Democrats like Richard Gephardt. It was Walter Jones, along with Ron Paul, Bob Barr, Tom Tancredo, and Dennis Kucinich, who (along with 12 other representatives) sued Clinton in 1999 for violating the 1973 War Powers Resolution. That doesn't make them saints, but it demonstrates that the Democrats are not, at their core, against foreign intervention.


That fact would be more embarrassing if the debate over the surge was more than a kabuki show. As it stands, with anti-interventionist Democrats sidelined by both parties, the Republicans who only supported the war because George W. Bush asked for it are attempting to recover their credibility. The Republican having the best time doing so is Hagel, who voted for the original Iraq War Resolution but took time at the Wednesday press conference to brag that he wasn't merely signing onto Biden's and Levin's resolution. "These two Democratic senators did not get this Republican senator," Hagel said. "This Republican senator got them."

There are areas where the Democrats are genuinely interested in checking and reversing presidential power. They are serious about striking the government's ability to spy and torture; it's hard to imagine them walking that back under President Obama or Edwards or Clinton II. But neither party is truly opposed to intervention; neither party has a majority that would deny a president the power to wage a war like Iraq. The Democrats are not an anti-war party. Sorry, voters: This Congress is not getting you out of Iraq.

David Weigel is an associate editor of Reason.