Thursday, January 04, 2007

Vietnam on the mind: Congress jockeys for position on Bush's new plan for Iraq

There's an awful lot of speculation on what Bush's new plan for Iraq might be. The consensus is that it will take the form of the "go big" option: the so-called "surge."

The details--just how large that surge will be, how long it might last, and what other policies or plans it will be tied into--remain to be seen. The plan is not just a strategic one for Bush and for Iraq, but it presents members of Congress with strategic dilemmas and decisions as well. They not only have to take a position on the merits, but in the time-honored way of most politicians, they have to decide what's in it for them in terms of re-election.

Bush, after all, has been released from that particular consideration. He only needs to take into account his own "vision" and plan for "success" (derided here by Fred Kaplan of Slate); Bush is exempt from serving another term. So, as Kaplan writes, "He's playing for History (most definitely with a capital H), which, he seems convinced, is on his side."

That's for history (or History) to decide. But history isn't written in the present, much as some would like to think it can be. Therefore the Democrats and Republicans trying to decide right now whether to support a surge in Iraq only know what has happened in the past, in distant times and places that may or may not be analogous; try as they (or we) might, they can't foretell the future.

John Keegan, a British writer who specializes in the history of war, opines that a surge could well be helpful in Iraq if it consists of a force of at least 50,000 troops and takes the war to the enemy rather than waging it defensively. Robert Tracinski, a disciple of Ayn Rand and head of The Intellectual Activist, thinks the only worthwhile approach would be to wage war--literal, not metaphorical--against Iran (this option is probably not going to be part of Bush's "go big" plan--he's thinking big, but not that big).

The jockeying for position goes on among members of Congress, with McCain being a major proponent of the "surge" policy, some Democrats (and a few Republicans) such as Biden saying a definite nay, and Democrat Carl Levin, new chief of the Armed Forces Committee, taking a middle, noncommittal, road:

While he would oppose an open-ended commitment, Mr. Levin said, he would not rule out supporting a plan to dispatch more troops if the proposal was tied to a broader strategy to begin reducing American involvement and sending troops home.

The dark shades of Vietnam hover over the proceedings, of course. Those who remember history know that US fighting forces had left Vietnam for several years when the US Congress pulled the financial plug on the South Vietnamese, against the will of then President Ford. Can, and will, there be a repeat?

As Kaplan points out, in this case it would be much more difficult for Congress to accomplish similar ends in Iraq:

...the Democrats are still plagued by the charge that they lost [Vietnam]. If Congress cuts off, or sharply cuts back, funding for the Iraq war, and if things subsequently get worse, who will be blamed in 2008 and beyond? The question answers itself. Purse strings are unwieldy instruments for such purposes, in any case. Few legislators of either party favor a total, immediate pullout from Iraq. Yet even if Congress somehow collectively decided how many troops should be withdrawn or redeployed, and what those left behind should do, it would be another task entirely to translate that decision into budgetary terms—and politically all but impossible to do so while the White House and its supporters sternly warn from the sidelines that the cuts will "hurt the troops."

In Vietnam, it was relatively easy to cut funding to the ARVN. Because Vietnamization had been successfully accomplished, in the sense that there were no more US combat troops there (and had not been for years), Congress's betrayal of the South Vietnamese to their fate was part of a foreign policy appropriations bill, the Foreign Assistance Act of December 1974, which was vetoed by President Ford but overridden and passed by the hugely Democratic Congress of the time.

Since Iraqization is far from complete at the moment, and American combat forces are most assuredly still in Iraq, appropriations for this war don't come under the heading of foreign aid. Any withdrawal of funds would be part of the appropriations for the military as a whole, and that probably wouldn't be a popular stance in this post-9/11 world, even for most Democrats, except those whose constituencies are profoundly and markedly liberal/Left.

And so Congressional leaders who might want to withdraw funds to Iraq and stymie Bush's "go big" plans are in an interesting position, lacking the tools used by their Vietnam-era predecessors--although, if Iraqization were successful, it paradoxically would give Congress the power it had (and exercised) in late 1974, the power to abandon the country for which so many had previously sacrificed, when the cost had shrunk down to a relatively bearable one.

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