To: Members of the 110th Congress
From: John Podesta, Larry Korb, Scott Lilly, and Brian Katulis
President Bush and his allies in Congress are planning to use an impending veto of $100 billion of additional taxpayer spending to divide those favoring a new direction on Iraq policy. President Bush also wants to demonstrate to the American public that, far from being a lame duck, he can still bring Congress to heel. It won’t work, as long as those who support a common sense redeployment policy that gets our troops out of Iraq’s civil war and makes Americans safer continue to lead the debate.
Strategic redeployment is a strong path forward and an alternative to the current Iraq policy. Our armed services need to reposition around the region and the world to hunt down our nation’s real terrorist enemies, to rebuild our ground forces after four years of poorly managed warfare in Iraq, and restore American leadership in the world. Our brave men and women in uniform also need to be in a position to support the tough diplomacy necessary to contain the violence unleashed by the president’s war of choice within Iraq’s borders and stabilize the Middle East.
These national security imperatives guarantee that those seeking a new direction on Iraq will achieve their goal of beginning a redeployment of U.S. troops this year—assuming they don’t underplay or overplay their strong hand after President Bush’s veto. Progressives need to prepare for the coming standoff by considering four fundamentals about the debate and four possible post-veto scenarios.
The battle between Congress and the White House over the future of Iraq policy is what the Constitution intended, but the president needs to come to the table with a different approach. Calling meetings in which the president announces that he has made his decision and that he won’t negotiate will not unify the country. President Bush must yield on his demand to continue sending troops into Iraq’s civil war. A growing number of Americans, from former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to a strong majority of the public, knows that military victory in someone else’s civil war is not possible.
In addition to its strong oversight role, Congress has four main tools to increase pressure on President Bush and his allies: fence the funding to shorter intervals; set standards for military readiness; hold the Iraqi government and the Bush administration accountable for progress on benchmarks in Iraq’s political transition; and set timetables for redeployment. Congress can use these tools in combination, sequentially, or both.
How Congress puts these tools to use will determine whether it can put our country’s national security priorities back in order despite President Bush’s obstinacy. With the right mix, opponents of the Bush Iraq policy can force supporters of the Bush policy into a steady stream of bad votes on an unpopular war and substantially increase the chance that the president will begin a redeployment this year to make Americans safer.
Four Fundamentals in the Iraq Debate
1. Americans want Iraq policy to change. President Bush and his conservative allies are out of touch with Iraq’s grim realities and out of step with what’s best for our country and what Americans want. Two-thirds of Americans disapprove of President Bush’s handling of Iraq. And a similar share believes that Congress should have primary or joint responsibility for setting the direction of Iraq policy—something the Constitution requires. A strong majority supports bringing troops home and increasing diplomatic efforts to stabilize Iraq and the region.
In a last-ditch effort, conservatives have increased their partisan rhetoric. But rhetoric is not a substitute for getting the Iraq policy right, and “surrender date” will work in 2007 just as poorly as “cut-and-run” slogans did in 2006. Opponents of the Bush Iraq policy should respond by steadily ratcheting up the pressure on the Bush administration.
2. Congress has shared power on Iraq policy. As a representative body and co-equal branch of government, Congress has the constitutional authority to safeguard our country’s security and shape Iraq policy. The constitution’s framers, with fresh memories of an all-powerful King George III, established a system of checks and balances that made war power a shared responsibility of the executive and legislative branches.
Congress has repeatedly exercised its war powers at numerous times including Kosovo, Bosnia, Somalia, Lebanon, and Vietnam, and has many options. The president is the commander in chief of the armed forces while Congress has sole power to declare war and to fund the conduct of the war. Owning this power doesn’t make the current
Congress responsible for President Bush’s failures in Iraq. The 110th Congress has already demonstrated its seriousness of purpose in holding the Bush administration accountable for its errors. It has exercised increased oversight in the misuse of U.S. taxpayer money in Iraq by keeping the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction office open after conservative efforts to close it. And it has worked to improve health care for troops and veterans as demonstrated by the hearings on the abysmal conditions for veterans at Walter Reed Medical Center.
The current Congress has also moved more quickly than the previous Congress on the war-spending measure. To date, deliberations on the supplemental have taken roughly half the time they took the previous Congress. In fact, the 110th Congress could spend another eight weeks in debates and still beat last year’s schedule. The false funding crisis being trumpeted by President Bush and his allies is about as true as Vice President Cheney saying the Iraqi insurgency was in its “last throes” in 2005. Given the history of this inter-branch struggle, the current Congress should view the Iraq debate as a steady campaign to pressure President Bush to change direction while holding him accountable for his mistakes.
3. The Iraq debate is likely to continue as long as President Bush is in office. Our country is in the middle of a years-long, multi-round Iraq debate that began in 2005 and will continue until President Bush leaves office. To strengthen their leadership on Iraq, supporters for change in Iraq need to remember this context of a multi-stage Iraq debate.
Looking ahead to the rest of 2007, Congress has numerous opportunities to enhance our country’s security and shape the country’s Iraq policy—including the FY2008 Defense Authorization and Appropriations bills and the FY2008 State Department and Foreign Operations bill. In addition, there are signs that President Bush’s mishandling of the war and neglect of U.S. troops might require another supplemental funding bill for FY2008. Each of these legislative vehicles presents an opportunity to pressure the Bush administration to put our country’s national security priorities back in order.
4. The strategic goal is to begin a responsible redeployment this year. Strategic redeployment remains the best option. A phased redeployment in Iraq gives the United States the best chance for revitalizing our ground troops stretched thin during the last four years and for dedicating more resources to other important threats, such as the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. Importantly, the United States can utilize our military redeployment to exercise leverage over countries in the Middle East and get them to do their share to help stabilize Iraq and clean up their corner of the world. Coupled with intensified diplomatic efforts to stabilize the Middle East, a phased redeployment could help the United States take back control of the situation.
Four Post-Veto Scenarios
If President Bush foolishly carries out his threat to veto funding for the troops, the response from those championing accountability and a new direction on Iraq will determine whether they will remain in the lead on shaping the country’s Iraq debate.
Scenario 1: Provide a short infusion of $40 billion of funding
Congress could respond by quickly passing a war-spending bill that provides a short infusion and tight leash on the funding for the current supplemental. This short-term infusion of funding would not include spending on domestic projects and would provide funding for the military operations for a defined period of time. The short-term infusion would entail providing $40 billion to ensure the military can maintain its operations and management budget.
Since the current funding does not run out until later this summer, this would ensure that troops in the field receive the support they need while progressive leaders work to ensure the country gets the Iraq policy we deserve. Taking this path opens the door for Congress to incrementally fence off the funding. This approach would maintain pressure on President Bush while keeping the door open to a continued debate over Iraqi benchmarks and redeployment timelines, and keep the focus on holding President Bush accountable. A second infusion of funding could be debated in August, just after the Bush administration is required to issue reports from the Pentagon and State Department outlining the status of its Iraq policy.
Scenario 2: Demand President Bush account for the military readiness of units being sent to Iraq and acknowledge the strains on troops already in Iraq in the FY2007 supplemental funding bill
Congress could respond to the president denying funds to the troops by making him certify that troops in Iraq are at a readiness level of C-1, or ready for the full wartime mission. A renewed supplemental funding bill should require the president to explain in writing to the American people why he is sending units into harm’s way if he cannot certify this readiness. This would help the American public understand the strains our military forces are under and help the country make the best decisions on the right Iraq strategy. In addition, Congress should require President Bush to provide it with a regular report on the status of units currently in Iraq that outlines the strains extended deployments are placing on each of the individual units and overall fighting strength of U.S. armed forces.
Scenario 3: Demand that certification of progress towards benchmarks for Iraq’s political transition remains a part of the FY2007 supplemental funding bill
Congress could respond to President Bush’s veto by offering funding that requires President Bush to certify benchmarks on Iraqi performance on its political transition. President Bush could waive—but only if he explicitly puts in writing—the rationale for waiving these benchmarks and goals. President Bush has stated that the goals of his Iraq policy include an Iraq that can “govern itself, sustain itself, and defend itself.” Political reforms that Iraq’s leaders have promised but so far have failed to deliver are a key part of this strategy.
The Bush administration has outlined a set of benchmarks for Iraq’s political transition that includes a new oil law, a de-Ba’athfication law to help with national reconciliation, a provincial election law, and holding a referendum on constitutional amendments. To date, Iraq’s leaders have not made much progress on any of these key benchmarks. This third scenario amounts to holding President Bush and Iraq’s leaders accountable to the goals that they themselves set for Iraq’s political transition.
Scenario 4: Keep the pressure for redeployment dates by offering this language in the markups of the FY2008 Defense Authorization and Appropriations bills
Congress could keep the pressure for redeployment dates by offering this language in the markups of the FY2008 Defense Authorization and Appropriations bills, as well as the FY2008 State Department and Foreign Operations bill. Congress should continue to pressure through the summer and fall to begin redeployment this year and set a plan for completing the combat mission at a time of our choosing and not when Iraq’s leaders decide to stand up and take control.
Those championing accountability and a new direction on Iraq need to build support for its alternative strategy. The most recent votes on the 2007 supplemental spending bill received support from slim majorities in the House (218-212) and Senate (51-47). The country will increasingly support a redeployment strategy as it becomes clearer by the day that the Bush Iraq policy is not working.
Conclusion: Steady and Constant Pressure to Change the Bush Iraq Policy
Our best judgment is that the next best step after President Bush vetoes funding for the troops is some combination of scenarios one and two outlined above: offer a short infusion of cash combined with continued pressure for greater accountability on military readiness standards. This reasonable strategy would continue to weaken President Bush’s hand and hold him accountable for his mistakes. It also preserves the ability to utilize other legislative vehicles to press President Bush to accept a strategic redeployment.
Whichever scenario unfolds after the president wields his veto pen, however, progressives will be able to maintain the high ground simply because of the logic of their case for a phased redeployment from Iraq. Even the president’s supporters all but concede this point. Few leaders and observers hold out hope that the Bush escalation will fundamentally change dynamics in Iraq and the Middle East. Even among the dwindling voices in favor of President Bush’s “New Way Forward” policy, support has been tepid. Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said the Bush escalation was “the last chance,” and House minority leader John Boehner (R-OH) said in January that it would be clear in the next 60 to 90 days as to whether this plan is going to work.
Nearly two months since the start of the military escalation, the early returns of the Bush plan are not positive—with a steady death toll and political deadlock among Iraq’s leaders ensuing. Proponents of accountability and changing the course in Iraq still maintain a strong advantage over President Bush and his conservative allies. Unless they overplay their strong hand, they will remain in charge of this debate.