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A Vote for Retreat

The Journal Editorial Report

Paul Gigot: This week on "The Journal Editorial Report," a veto threat from President Bush as Democrats tie emergency war funding to a timetable for troop withdrawal. But as we mark the fourth anniversary of the Iraq invasion, is there progress being made on the ground? We'll have a firsthand account. Plus, a high school prank goes all the way to the Supreme Court in a case that has the ACLU teaming up with Christian conservatives. We'll have the details after these headlines.

Gigot: Welcome to "The Journal Editorial Report." I'm Paul Gigot. President Bush marked the fourth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq this week, calling the fight difficult but insisting it can still be won. With a surge of more than 21,000 troops still in its early stages, and a Democratic Congress calling for a pullout deadline, the president asked for more time to let the new plan work.

Bush: The new strategy will need more time to take effect. And there will be good days and there will be bad days ahead as the security plan unfolds.

Gigot: Former assistant secretary of defense Bing West is a correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly. He recently returned from a trip to Baghdad and al Anbar Province.

Bing West, welcome to the program. Good to have you here.

West: Thank you.

Gigot: Gen. Petraeus's surge plan is still unfolding, in its early stages. But based on what you've you have seen in Baghdad and heard, can we see signs of progress yet?

West: Yes, we can. And I think for a very basic reason. If you have a problem with crime and you send more policemen onto the streets, we know crime's going to go down. The same thing is happening in Baghdad. Because our soldiers are getting out in the neighborhoods, the amount of violence is going down.

Gigot: What do you make of the reports the Shiite militia, those who working with or associated with Moqtada al-Sadr, that they are, in fact, laying low or heading out of town? Is this good news?

West: I think it is good news. The Shiite militia are not the enemy of the United States. The al Qaeda in Iraq, Sunni insurgents, are the enemy. They're the ones that would bomb us anyplace if they could. The Shiite militias are engaged in their own, if you will, pushing out, the ethnic cleansing of some of the Sunnis. But the Shiite militias see us as being an impediment, not something they want to take on. So the fact that they've left, the fact that leaders have fled the battlefield, changes things dramatically.

Gigot: So that's something the surge is seeming to make progress against, is stopping the ethnic cleansing that was going on, Shiite against Sunni.

West: That's correct. It has definitely slowed down that ethnic cleansing. The other side of the equation, though, is that the Sunni insurgents, especially al Qaeda in Iraq, use those murderous car bombs just to kill anyone--men, women, children in markets. That's much tougher because you have a million cars and you're trying to find that one car that has a suicide bomber, who is told by some offshoot of his religion that he's going to go for heaven for murder.

Gigot: Well, how do you get that problem under control? Gen. Odierno, who is the No. 2 to Gen. Petraeus over there, has said that it may not be enough, if you're going to stop that car bomb problem, just to have the surge in Baghdad, but may have--maybe have to go into the collar communities of Baghdad where some of these truck bombs originate. What's the plan for that?

West: That's really tough. And it's tough because you're dealing with an area about the size of Utah, and it's all small farms along the banks of the river, the Euphrates River. And as a consequence, there are maybe 100,000 hiding places. I think what you're going to see after this surge is that we are going to be reducing our troops and it is going to be up to the Iraqi soldiers to, for years, go from farm to farm to farm just tracking down these extremists.

Gigot: Now, we have also heard reports that in al Anbar Province, where you visited, some of the tribal sheiks have been really turning against the extremists, and that they have a pretty good relationship--a growing, improving relationship--with the Marines. Is that true, that sign of progress?

West: In four years--and I've been back to Fallujah about 10 times and Ramadi about a dozen times--this is the first time I really saw a change in terms of the attitude of the sheiks. There are 26 tribes in Anbar. Anbar is like the Old West in about 1880. There's no central government. It's individual towns like Tombstone, and you have to take control tribe by tribe. And now of 26 tribes, 16 are working against al-Qaeda, because al- Qaeda's been killing all of them. So there's been--it's like you now have some Apaches, but now the Comanches have come over and they've said they said, We're going to get those Apaches. So it's making a huge difference.

Gigot: That's fascinating. When you're over there, you talk to the battalion commanders, you talk to the company commanders. What is their morale like, and what do think they expect from their political leaders back home, today--from the new Congress?

West: Wow. Look, let me put in this way. I fought also in Vietnam. I was with a combined-action platoon that spent 485 days in a Vietnamese village. I think the Congress has to be awfully, awfully careful and not so conceited about itself. It seems to be looking at everything as though it's a political game without really asking what's the effect on the morale over time. I mean, can you imagine, if you're a squad leader or platoon commander, and you're beginning to do well in your area--and that's happening--and you see these people debating something that seems to you to be kind of nutty and has nothing to do with what's happening on the ground, and yet they're saying things like, "We are going to pull you out a year from now"?

I think we have to be awfully careful we don't get into a situation the way the way we did in Vietnam in 1969 and 1970, where the troops looked over their shoulder and saw nobody behind them. So there is a burden, I think, on the Congress to be very judicious in what it does. And that's a burden that Congress should take very, very carefully

Gigot: All right. Good advice, Bing West. Thanks so much for being here.

West: Thank you, Paul.

Gigot: When we come back, congressional Democrats tie emergency war-funding legislation to a fall 2008 deadline for troop withdrawal. But what else is in this $124 billion bill? We'll tell you after the break.

Gigot: Welcome back. President Bush is getting his veto pen ready as Democrats in Congress load up a war-spending bill with pork barrel projects and so-called benchmarks for progress in Iraq that would require U.S. troop withdrawal if they aren't met.

Joining the panel this week, Wall Street Journal columnist and editorial page deputy editor Dan Henninger, columnist and editorial board member Bret Stephens, and in Washington this week, columnist and editorial board member Kim Strassel.

Kim, the president asked for Iraq and Afghanistan spending bill of about $100 billion, with $3 billion for disaster relief. How did this thing become a $124 billion monstrosity?

Strassel: This is called buying your way to a victory. What you've got here is--remember that Nancy Pelosi and her liberals ran on an antiwar agenda. And now her antiwar wing wants her to hold up to the principles. The bill she put forward, though, with its deadlines, as bad as it is, doesn't go as far as some liberals would like. In addition, it makes some conservative Democrats nervous that it goes too far. So her only option is to actually buy votes and threaten people into voting for it. And she has done that with millions for spinach, for peanuts, for wildfire suppression. There's a minimum-wage provision. I mean, someone said it well earlier this week. This is better suited for a kind of highway bill discussion than it is a serious war discussion.

Gigot: All right, but as the week went on, and some of the real opponents of the war, Bret, decided that they could vote for this, because they think it can, in fact, stop the war eventually, or at least it's that kind of a symbol. What about these benchmarks for victory? Benchmarks, not for victory, but benchmarks for retreat that Congress is imposing in this bill.

Stephens: Well, it's kind of astonishing. Either we withdraw in the spring of next year, according to the bill, or we withdraw, at the latest, in the fall. What is amazing to me is the hubris of a Congress that thinks that it can manage or micromanage the pace of events 5,000 or 6,000 miles away in Iraq. And it's all the more amazing, because you do now have, as Bing West pointed out, a surge that does seem to be working. The level of violence in Baghdad is way down. The successes of American troops against al Qaeda has absolutely improved. And so there's a real kind of disconnect here between what is happening in Iraq and what--the kind of pressure Pelosi is under.

Henninger: Yeah. I think the disconnect has been the House leadership: Speaker Pelosi, John Murtha. They thought opposition to the war was a slam dunk, because that's the way they won in November. Now they're finding out, even among their own members, it is not a slam dunk.

For instance, Congresswoman Carol Shea-Porter from New Hampshire, a liberal, went over to Iraq about two weeks ago, came back and said, You know what? I'm little ambivalent about what we are doing here. She is being attacked by her own constituents. On the right, you have Congressman David Boren, who's supporting the president. On the left, John Lewis says, I won't vote for any of this stuff. has been attacked by bloggers to the left of them on this. It's much more complicated than Nancy Pelosi thought.

Stephens: It also brings up the fact that, when you bring up Vietnam analogies, you have to remember that they're often more complicated and they cut various ways. It was the Democratic Party that collapsed in 1968 over the divisions of the war. And something similar could happen here, when you have an extreme left wing that wants it one way, and moderates--the moderates that you mentioned--who don't want to defund the troops, don't want to be seen betraying--

Gigot: Kim, we have just a little time. But, Kim, do you have any doubt the president will veto this bill, and would his veto be sustained?

Strassel: Yes, the president will veto this bill. The question--remember, this has also got to go up to the Senate, and it faces a lot of harder prospects there because Democrats have failed to get through similarly tough language in the last few weeks. So this is--this is going to be defeated, and the question is how Nancy Pelosi goes about passing a supplemental that can get through, and can get to the president's desk and get signed, and that she doesn't get criticized for leaving the troops with no money.

Gigot: All right, Kim, thanks.

We'll be back after this short break. Still to come, very strange bedfellows. Christian conservatives and the ACLLU team up in a Supreme Court case that once again questions the free-speech rights of school kids. That, and our "Hits and Misses" of the week when "The Journal Editorial Report" continues.

Gigot: Dozens of students protested outside the Supreme Court this week as the justices took on what legal experts are calling their biggest student speech case in two decades. At issue is whether an Alaska principal acted reasonably, and in accord with the school's antidrug mission, when she suspended a student for displaying a 14-foot banner reading "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" across the street from his Juneau high school.

Dan, I know this is the kind of case you got into journalism to talk about. What's at stake here?

Henninger: Well, what's at stake is whether schools--public schools, junior high school principals--are able to administer and control their schools, or whether the students are accorded such extraordinary rights of speech, dress and so forth, that they can pretty much do what they want. And this all flows out of cases from the 1960s and the 1980s that expanded rights for students in the schools. And I think can you trace the decline of order in the schools along with that.

Now, the Supreme Court clearly has recognized there's a dilemma here. Either you need some discipline in the schools or you give students a full panoply of rights. And they're going to try to figure that out with this case.

Stephens: I take a very different view of the case. What this case is ultimately about is whether our schools and this country is going to basically kowtow to every politically correct orthodoxy that comes our way. What if the banner had read "Bong hits 4 Muhammad" or "Bong hits 4 Buddha," and various groups had claimed to be offended?

This issue is very active in France, where a publisher, in fact, faces criminal charges for publishing the notorious cartoons about Muhammad. And I think that--what you run the risk of, in this instance, is by trying to defend the principal's very dubious right to police speech outside of the schoolhouse gate--because that's where it took place--you are going to find principals and other school authorities insisting on all kinds of speech, which they will claim to be disruptive to the school's mission. And at the end of the day, you're going to end up with legally enforceable politically correct speech codes.

Gigot: Yeah, but what if you have a situation where some kid is in history class and he decides, You know, I don't like the Iraq war, and I want to debate the Iraq war in this classroom. Does the teacher have a right to enforce order in that kind of a circumstance?

Stephens: Well, that's a completely different case. Because Frederick, the student, was outside the schoolhouse gate. He unfurled his banner in a--

Gigot: --in a school-sponsored event where he deliberately flouted school antidrug policy. Now since when can't a principal discipline someone like that?

Stephens: I don't understand how he was flouting school antidrug policy.

Gigot: Well, by saying "Bong hits 4 Jesus," he was advertising drug use! How's that?

Strassel: You know what? What's that old famous saying about how the Constitution isn't a suicide pact? If you talk to any parent--and I am one--giving a child the ability to say whatever they want is suicide.

Gigot: What about the Supreme Court oral arguments in this case, Dan? You read the transcript, know what the justices are talking about. Where are they going to come out?

Henninger: Well, I think they're going to come out restricting and paring back some of the extensive free speech rights that they have given to the students, because, as Chief Justice Roberts said, a principal faced with a situation like this has got to say, "Do I apply case A, case B or case C?" And they are supposed to do that instantaneously or be sued. It's a ridiculous situation.

Gigot: So they're really reeling back some of their earlier decisions here and trying to make up for that mistake in 1969 in the Tinker case.

Henninger: Yes, exactly. I think that's inevitable.

Gigot: OK. We have to take one more break. When we come back, our "Hits and Misses" of the week.

Gigot: Winners and losers, picks and pans, "Hits and Misses," it's our way of calling attention to the best and the worst of the week.

Item one, peace activists marked the Iraq war anniversary this week in a not-so-peaceful fashion. Dan?

Henninger: Yeah, if people think Nancy Pelosi is having problems controlling the Democratic Caucus, wait till they get a look at the peace activist wing the November elections let out of the bottle.

This past week in Washington, there was a sit-in at the office of Democratic Congressman Chris Van Hollen. They were pasting up pictures of dead soldiers on the wall, banging a gong every time they read off a name. In Michigan, at the office of Republican Mike Rogers, they splattered red paint on his office, put graffiti up on the walls. And for the last 10 days, they've been sitting outside of the house of Nancy Pelosi in San Francisco.

You know, there must be some sort of genetic inheritance here, which the baby boomers feel they're going to bring back all of the 1960s and 1970s again, and the antiwar movement, and I think it is time to get out the Joan Boaz LPs and buy tickets for the next year's Democratic Convention.

Gigot: All right, Dan, thanks.

Next, animal rights activists urge a German zoo to kill an abandoned polar bear cub. Bret?

Stephens: Yeah, Paul, meet Knut [holds up stuffed animal]. This is my 3-year-old daughter's cuddly-wuddly version of Knut. But in reality, Knut is a 20-pound, three-month-old polar bear in the Berlin Zoo. He was rejected by his mother. His brother died. And for the past three months, the zookeeper has actually been bottle-feeding the little bear and keeping it alive.

Now, you would think this is a heartwarming story. Not for everyone. Animal-rights activists claim that this is inappropriate for the species, and the best thing that can be done for this little creature is to give it lethal injection. Now I don't know what's appropriate for polar bears, but for human beings, that certainly is not.

Gigot: Finally, a hit for John and Elizabeth Edwards. Kim?

Strassel: You know, presidential races can be vicious. But I think the low point in this one so far came this week when commentators and bloggers started trashing on John Edwards for deciding to continue his presidential campaign, despite the recurrence of his wife's cancer. What made this depressing is, if you watch the Edwards press conference, it was actually quite inspiring. These people are a team. They've been married 30 years. He clearly is devoted to seeing her through this, but she's also devoted to seeing him realize his presidential ambitions. It was also inspiring to see her be so brave in the face of this. So a hit to the Edwards.

Gigot: Yeah, I agree. This is really a decision for them to make. And the rest of us ought to stay out of it.

OK. That's it for this week's edition of "The Journal Editorial Report." Thanks to Dan Henninger, Bret Stephens and Kim Strassel. I'm Paul Gigot. Thanks to all of you for watching. And we hope to see you right here next week.

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