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Iraq, Democrats, and the Return of McGovernism

By Peter Wehner

Last Thursday, by a vote of 50-48, the Senate rejected a Democratic resolution to withdraw most American combat troops from Iraq in early 2008. The House Appropriations Committee, meanwhile, approved an emergency spending bill for Iraq and Afghanistan that includes a timeline for withdrawal from Iraq. The full House is expected to vote on that legislation later this week. In the words of the New York Times, "The action in both houses threw into sharp relief the Democratic strategy of ratcheting up the pressure, vote by vote, to try to force the White House to begin withdrawing troops from Iraq."

Given these unfolding events, it is worth taking a step back and holding up to scrutiny the effort by Democrats.

Handcuffing Our Commanders: In wartime, day-to-day military operations are not neatly broken down into arbitrary categories that can be codified into law. Under proposals by Democrats, for example, the military might have to increase the number of lawyers to scrutinize battlefield decisions by military commanders. Do we really want our commanders on the ground to debate whether specific patrols represent allowable activity (under the banner of "protecting United States and Coalition personnel") or whether they amount to other, prohibited combat operations? Do we really want our commanders to rely on lawyers to determine if hot pursuit of an illegal militia would be allowed as "conducting targeted counterterrorism operations" or be prohibited as "policing a civil war"?

The plan by Democrats to micromanage the war is simply unworkable. There is no precedent in American history for succeeding in a war when the commanders were taking battlefield direction from Members of the House and Senate. In the words of the Los Angeles Times (in an editorial titled, "Do We Really Need A Gen. Pelosi?"):

"It was one thing for the House to pass a nonbinding vote of disapproval. It's quite another for it to set out a detailed timetable with specific benchmarks and conditions for the continuation of the conflict. Imagine if Dwight Eisenhower had been forced to adhere to a congressional war plan in scheduling the Normandy landings or if, in 1863, President Lincoln had been forced by Congress to conclude the Civil War the following year. This is the worst kind of congressional meddling in military strategy."

Volte-Face: Not all that long ago, leading Democrats thought arbitrary and rigid timetables were a very bad idea. Speaking at the National Press Club in 2005, now-Majority Leader Harry Reid said this:

"As far as setting a timeline, as we learned in the Balkans, that's not a wise decision, because it only empowers those who don't want us there, and it doesn't work well to do that."

Six months later, the now-Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, Joseph Biden, put it this way:

"A deadline for pulling out ... will only encourage our enemies to wait us out." He added it would be "a Lebanon in 1985 [sic]. And God knows where it goes from there."

And three months later, the junior Senator from New York, Hillary Rodham Clinton, said this: "I don't believe it's smart to set a date for withdrawal. I don't think you should ever telegraph your intentions to the enemy so they can await you." (emphasis added)

The arguments made by these Democrats were based on a time-honored truth: setting a date certain for withdrawal, regardless of conditions on the ground and the trajectory of events, is exactly what our enemies want. Osama bin Laden said this: "Success in Baghdad will be success for the United States. Failure in Iraq is the failure of the United States. Their defeat in Iraq will mean defeat in all their wars." Ayman al-Zawahiri, the number two leader of al Qaeda, said that Iraq "is now the place for the greatest battle of Islam in this era." He also said, "the Jihad in Iraq requires several incremental goals: The first stage: Expel the Americans from Iraq."

As a general rule of military strategy, you don't want to take steps that are the equivalent of sending a gift-wrapped package to your adversaries. That is precisely what a date certain for withdrawal would be. Once upon a time, leading Democrats believed this and therefore argued against it. Now they are arguing for it. I'll leave it to others to ascertain why that might be the case.

Indifference to the Constitution: If Democrats want to end U.S. military involvement in the war in Iraq, they have the ability to do so. They can cut off funding for U.S. operations and troops. But the way they are going about it now has "no place in our constitutional culture" (to cite former Department of Justice lawyers David B. Rivkin Jr. and Lee Casey). Messrs Rivkin and Casey point out that there are constitutional limits on Congress's ability to direct presidential action during times of war -- in particular, "Congress cannot use its power of the purse to micromanage the president's execution of his office."

The reason for this rests with the wisdom of the founders and the doctrine of separation of powers. The Constitution declares that the President, not the 535 Members of Congress, "shall be Commander in Chief." It is a core constitutional responsibility of the chief executive and not of a House Member who represents, say, the eighth district of California. Alexander Hamilton, in Federalist Paper #70, wrote, "Energy in the Executive is a leading character in the definition of good government. It is essential to the protection of the community against foreign attacks."

Justice Robert Jackson, when he was attorney general for President Franklin Roosevelt, said this: "The President's responsibility as Commander-in-Chief embraces the authority to command and direct the armed forces in their immediate movements and operations, designed to protect the security and effectuate the defense of the United States."

Just so. What Democrats are attempting is an unprecedented effort to arrogate war-making powers unto themselves.

The legislative branch has important and carefully delineated responsibilities when it comes to matters of war and peace. Those not among them are directing the daily movement of U.S. troops; limiting the number that can be sent; dictating when individual military units can be deployed and for how long; imposing a rigid date for withdrawal; and announcing that if the government of Iraqi doesn't meet certain benchmarks, an even earlier withdrawal will be triggered.

Impervious to Evidence: What is perhaps most striking about the Democratic proposals, at least in terms of their timing, is that they are advocating withdrawal at precisely the moment when the new strategy, which has been in place barely a month, is beginning to show signs of progress.

As General Petraeus noted in a recent press briefing, the Iraqi Council of Ministers has agreed on a hydrocarbon law and sent it to the Iraqi Parliament for approval; sectarian killings in Baghdad have been lower over the past several weeks; sectarian displacement of families is down, with some families beginning to return to their neighborhoods; a number of tribes in Anbar Province have joined with Coalition forces to fight terrorists operating there. The Iraqi government has completed the deployment of three Iraqi army brigades to the capital and the Iraqi legislature passed a $41 billion budget that includes $10 billion for reconstruction and capital improvements. And General Petraeus has only received two of the five brigades he has been promised. More are on the move.

It is still far too early to predict the outcome of events in Iraq. Whether the progress can be sustained is an open question -- but the wisdom of rigid timetables for withdrawal and setting a cap on troops levels is not. These are deeply irresponsible ideas; if they were to come to pass a calamity, and rivers of blood, would follow in their wake.

* * * *

Many Democrats believe an American defeat in Iraq is etched in granite. They would not be the first to lose heart and will in war. Yet it is one thing to give up on a cause; it is quite another to advocate legislation (17 different proposals in all, according to Senator Mitch McConnell) that would guarantee failure even before a new strategy is given time to work. This is especially the case when the preliminary trajectory of events is encouraging.

There will continue to be ebbs and flows in this war, as in all wars. But virtually everyone agrees that a loss in Iraq would be catastrophic for American national interests. We are facing among the most sadistic enemies we have ever encountered. There is much we do not understand about them and their worldview -- but one thing is clear: they probe for weakness; they interpret retreat as a supreme sign of weakness; and when they find weakness, they strike.

If we retreat from Iraq, Islamic jihadists will not go gently into the good night.

We are now engaged in a pivotal war, which is itself part of an epic struggle. General David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. military commander in Iraq who was confirmed by the Senate without a single vote in opposition, is one of America's great military minds and one of America's great military commanders. Why oh why, then, are so many Democrats spending so much of their time and creative energy in an effort to undermine General Petraeus's new strategy instead of supporting it? Even granting the partisan politics of this city, the effort by Democrats is a remarkably revealing thing to witness. "Come Home, America" and McGovernism are back with a vengeance -- and like Round One, in 1972, it will leave a lasting imprint on the minds of Americans, for years to come.

Peter Wehner is deputy assistant to the President and director of the White House's Office of Strategic Initiatives.

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