Friday, January 05, 2007

Could Congress pull off a 1974-1975 redux, after all?

Yesterday I wrote about the limitations Congress might face in opposing a "surge" of American troops in Iraq if--as rumor would have it--such a surge is part of Bush's new Iraq policy to be unveiled next week.

Today I read this article by E.J. Dionne, which describes some more creative solutions contemplated by Democratic leaders such as Biden.

As I wrote yesterday, at this point the only direct way to oppose the surge would be some sort of vast reduction in military funding as a whole--as opposed to the mere cutting back of foreign aid to a specific country, as was done to the South Vietnamese at the tail end of 1974, when US combat forces had departed years earlier.

But there are indirect ways, as well--for example, a Congressional resolution which could, according to Biden:

...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.

I'm not sure he doesn't underestimate (or "misunderestimate") Bush's ability to resist such pressure. After all, as I pointed out yesterday, it's not as though Bush is up for re-election. And I'm not sure he cares all that much, either, about the re-election prospects of those Republicans in Congress who might be anti-surge, especially when weighed in the balance against what he sees as the importance of fighting the insurgency and terrorists in Iraq.

But Biden has a few more tricks up his sleeve. And in this, he's also aided by (what else?) the ghost of Vietnam:

Biden is studying whether Congress might reconsider the original Iraq War resolution, which is now as out of date as the news stories of 2002, the year it passed.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.

Dionne also points out that Senator Carl Levin has high hopes for the passage of a resolution he has crafted with another Democratic Senator, Jack Reed, calling for benchmarks and a withdrawal plan.

It remains to be seen what effect such resolutions might have on this particular President. But the drawback of any such "benchmarks and a withdrawal plan" is that they would make our schedule public and transparent not only to US citizens but also to the enemy, who would be more than willing to lay low during any "surge," wait it out, and take over after we left.

The inherent telegraphing to our enemy of our lack of intent to--in that hackneyed, overused, but still important phrase, "stay the course"--would probably be a fatal blow to any campaign we might mount at this point. To put the kindest face on it, I wonder whether Biden, Levin, and their colleagues realize how important it is to communicate motivation and resolve to any enemy.

The consequences of the pullout in Vietnam were not only huge for those who suffered thereafter in Vietnam and Cambodia, but for the perception of American will and strength in the world. Our words and our promises were considered hollow; we were now a paper tiger. The same would be true--only perhaps more so--for an abandonment of Iraq.

The sharp cutoff in funding to South Vietnam that I mentioned in yesterday's post was only one of several efforts by Congress back then, however, to tie the hands of the US in prosecuting the Vietnam War, even after our combat troops had been withdrawn. Vietnam timelines indicate the following, as well, acts which served to clearly telegraph our lack of intent there:

June 24, 1970 - The U.S. Senate repeals the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. [Perhaps a precedent for Biden's current plans outlined above?]

June 19, 1973 - The U.S. Congress passes the Case-Church Amendment which forbids any further U.S. military involvement in Southeast Asia, effective August 15, 1973. The veto-proof vote is 278-124 in the House and 64-26 in the Senate. The Amendment paves the way for North Vietnam to wage yet another invasion of the South, this time without fear of U.S. bombing.

This amendment was passed after all US combat troops had been withdrawn. It also would have tied Nixon's (or any subsequent President's) hands in any efforts to fulfill Nixon's "secret promise" to South Vietnam at the time of the Peace Accords that the US would come to their aid militarily if the North violated the terms of those Accords in the future. Because of Congress, both the North and the South knew that was not going to happen.

Here's another move by Congress from the timeline:

November 7, 1973 - Congress passes the War Powers Resolution requiring the President to obtain the support of Congress within 90 days of sending American troops abroad.

This somewhat controversial resolution, whose constitutionality has been debated, remains in force today. It's an example of the constant tension between the executive and legislative branches of government on the question of the powers to wage war, especially limited actions that fall short of a full declaration of war.

If you go back to that Vietnam timeline and read about events during the year 1972, you'll get a deeper appreciation of what was happening there as Vietnamization progressed. As US fighting forces withdrew, the South Vietnamese were not doing badly against the North. However, there were heavy Vietnamese casualties on both sides (although not US ones) and the international community was protesting.

Crucial US support at the time consisted not just of military and technical aid, but of bombing Hanoi and Haiphong and mining harbors in the North. Note, especially, that the various Linebacker operations had been fairly successful against the North. The Case-Church amendment, passed not long after as a result of outrage against the casualties involved, made it a certainty that no more such operations could be launched.

Read, also, the years 1973 through 1975. The Peace Accords represented a strange compromise that allowed Northern forces to remain in the South, against the will of the South Vietnamese, who were powerless to object because of their fear that the US would cut assistance (which, of course, ended up happening anyway). The successive acts of Congress mentioned above, even before the final financial blow at the end of 1974 (particularly the Case-Church amendment), effectively curtailed the US ability to respond, and the North and South both knew it.

The history of struggle between Congress and the President for control of war powers reached a head during Vietnam. Iraq and Vietnam are different, but they are linked in certain ways. The next few months will see a repeat, not of the specific details, but of the general principles of the jockeying for power between the two branches.

The consequences were huge back in the 70s. This time they will be even larger, no matter which way it goes.

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