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Short-Circuiting the Surge

By E. J. Dionne

WASHINGTON -- The shift in power heralded by the Democrats' assumption of control in the House and Senate on Thursday could lead quickly to a direct confrontation with President Bush if he chooses, as many expect, to "surge'' additional troops into Iraq.

The surge, which opponents look upon as a soothing label for an outright escalation of an unpopular war, is seen by most Democrats and some Republicans as a direct rebuke to voters whose ballots last November signaled a negative verdict on the Iraq war.

They also argue that the surge cannot work because it proposes a military solution to what is primarily a political problem: the increasingly deadly confrontation between Iraq's Sunni and Shiite communities. The violent reaction to the taunting of Saddam Hussein by Shiite executioners underscored the futility of expecting that additional American troops can repair the damage done by three years of flawed policies.

But Democrats will barely have time to celebrate their new congressional authority before confronting a hard fact of the American constitutional system: If Bush wants to continue or expand the Iraq War, Congress has precious few tools available to stop the commander in chief.

As a result, Democrats are quietly but urgently seeking new ways of pressuring the president to change course, including the possibility of having Congress reconsider its original authorization of force passed in October 2002.

Even Bush's critics doubt that the most sweeping measure, cutting off funds for the president's policies, could be effective, or has the votes to pass. Yet Bush's opponents will be emboldened if he embarks on a surge, especially if it is not linked to what Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., the new chairman of the Armed Services Committee, calls "milestones'' for political reconciliation that the Iraqi government will have to reach. Levin, whose views are shared by many Democrats, also insists that any surge should be part of an "overall plan of troop reduction'' that would begin "within four to six months.''

Given the limited options, Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., the Foreign Relations Committee chairman, has proposed to colleagues that the strongest response to the surge would be a congressional resolution explicitly opposing the step.

Where cutting off funds is a "hollow threat,'' Biden said in an interview this week, a congressional resolution could have a powerful effect if it drew support from the significant number of Republican senators who are increasingly alienated from Bush's policies. An anti-surge resolution might not bind the president, says Biden, but it would exert considerable pressure on him to reconsider his approach.

More intriguingly, Biden is studying whether Congress might reconsider the original Iraq War resolution, which is now as out of date as the news stories of 2002, the year it passed. The resolution includes references to a "significant chemical and biological weapons capability'' that Iraq didn't have and repeated condemnations of "the current Iraqi regime,'' i.e., the Saddam Hussein regime that fell long ago. In effect, the resolution authorizes a war on an enemy who no longer exists and for purposes that are no longer relevant.

Biden is candid in acknowledging that it is difficult to find precedent for reconsidering a war resolution. Yet Biden's idea of revisiting the authority granted Bush could be a forceful way for Congress to reassert itself and encourage a full-scale debate on the future of American policy in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

Biden, along with many in both parties, is alarmed that the intense focus on Iraq is distracting attention from a disaster in the making in Afghanistan, with the resurgence of the Taliban. "If we're surging troops anywhere, it should be in Afghanistan,'' Biden says. He notes that adding troops there would give the United States "the moral high ground'' in its quest for more forces from NATO allies.

For his part, Levin believes that an anti-surge resolution has a realistic chance of passing the Senate. He is also considering pressing for a resolution he and Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., have crafted calling for benchmarks and a withdrawal plan.

Bush's critics are careful to say they still hope he will abandon the surge idea, which Levin sees as a desperate "Hail Mary'' pass. Yes, Bush has the power to order a surge. But if he insists on doing so in the face of widespread skepticism, a president proudly famous for relying on his "gut'' will discover that he faces a new Congress that does not regard Bush's instincts as a reliable guide to the defense of American interests.

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(c) 2007, Washington Post Writers Group


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