It looks as though Congress won't be able to pass any kind of comprehensive bill opposing the War in Iraq and Bush's escalation during this session, despite the fact that Democrats now enjoy a fairly sizable majority in the House of Representatives and a slim one in the Senate. There are a handful of reasons for this, but they can all be summed up quickly this way: while a large majority of Americans now think the war is going very badly and that we made a mistake in launching it in the first place, there is no consensus on what to do about it. Passing a single bill which has meaningful impact of the prosecution of the war, the escalation, a proposed withdrawal and appropriations all at the same time is nearly impossible, given the hundreds of combinations and permutations currently being proposed as solutions, not to mention the opposition of those lawmakers who support all or at least part of the Bush administration's prosecution of the war. It is just not going to happen.
But that doesn't mean that these issues, perhaps the most important issues in a generation and certainly the most important likely to be addressed in this congressional term, should be abandoned. We just have to approach these thorny issues differently. When I was studying math and science in college (I use the term "studying" lightly -- after a few years I changed that Physics major to a Theater major), one of the first things I learned was that you don't need to solve a complex problem all at once. In fact, you often can't. Instead, you break the problem down into its components, and address each one individually. As you figure out what works for one part of the problem, that often helps transform your understanding of the other parts. And, even if you can't figure out the whole problem, your work on the individual parts of the problem is progress -- certainly it is better than just staring at the thing and throwing up your hands.
The War in Iraq is not a math problem, I know, and the consequences of failing to solve it are far more severe than any bad grade. But, absent a sweeping consensus, the Democratic leadership in Congress must approach the Iraq War problem this way: break the problem down into components, and float solutions which will either pass, or at least force members to vote up or down on a simple, single statement. These individual bills should be offered without amendment, something the Democrats have the power to force, should they choose to do so. Here're my suggestions:
First, the Senate should abandon the idea of sweeping non-binding resolutions. I'm not one of those who thinks these are meaningless -- the House resolution set the tone to move forward, says a great deal about where we are as a country, and put Bush on notice that his stay-the-course-but-don't-call-it-that days are numbered. But the Senate has shown it can't pass a similar one. Case closed, time to move on. These resolutions are, after all, non-binding, and if you've got to fight to pass a non-binding resolution, it's just not worth it. We've bigger fish to fry.
Second, Congress should take the Administration's request for appropriations for the next eighteen months of war, divide it up by month, and then pass a short-term appropriations bill that covers the next three to six months. A lot of progressive purists (like me) who want an immediate plan for an end to this war (even if that end is months to years away) won't like it. That's too bad. The only thing that's clear right now is that we don't have a better solution we can all vote for -- this will buy us time. It's a crappy price to pay in American and Iraqi lives, but gives us time to come up with a better answer without the burden of the constant "you hate the troops and want them to die cold and naked on the battlefield" war-cries from the Right.
Then, Congress should pursue three bills which separately address only a portion of the problem, but in combination go a long way toward as good a resolution as I think we can hope for, given our prosecution of this wasteful war thus far:
A Troop Readiness bill
This bill would mandate reasonable maximum tour lengths and rest periods between tours for all of our troops, and sets minimum requirements for training and equipment for troops and their squads. This is the core of Murtha's proposal, and it is a good one. Without asking anyone to stand in favor of or opposed to Bush's plan for escalation, this could bring it quickly to a halt, since everyone seems to agree the only way we can make the escalation happen is to reduce training time, lengthen tours, shorten breaks, and go to war without much of the equipment our soldiers should have. Plus, providing the language is well-crafted (and it has to be), in order to vote against this bill, a lawmaker would basically have to say, on record, that he thinks sending green or un-rested, under-equipped troops into battle, and leaving them there way longer than is reasonable, is okay. That's a hard bill to vote against.
A Limitation of War Expansion bill
This bill would limit the scope of the bill passed by Congress in 2002 which gave Bush the authority to invade Iraq in the first place. Since that bill had an ill-defined scope, this one would better define it, clearly stating that Bush and his Pentagon cannot extend the war into any other sovereign nations (including Iran) or officially declare hostilities against any sovereign governments without additional congressional approval. Unlike the bill currently on the senate floor, this one would not call for a hard date to end the war -- mixing those two issues allows Senators to vote against the bill and then claim their vote was simply against the included timeline. By focusing on limiting the scope of the war, we limit the scope of the debate to a constitutional issue -- constitutionally, the power to declare war rests only in Congress; therefore any congressman who votes against this bill would essentially be voting against the constitution.
An Emergency Appropriations for Iraq Restrictions bill
This bill would make two declarations: one, that starting in fiscal 2008, appropriations for the war in Iraq must be included in the Pentagon's annual budget (this is already supposed to happen, but there's little to be done by way of enforcement, save refusal of funding, and Congress just isn't there yet), and two, that any emergency or supplemental appropriations requested by the Administration or the Pentagon for the war be clearly itemized (at least enough to differentiate Iraq war funds from Afghanistan war funds) and cover no more than 90 days of need. This is only logical -- if the Pentagon cannot foresee the future well enough to put the appropriations into its annual budget, then how can it ask for "emergency appropriations" for a year or more? This will force the Pentagon and the Administration to weigh the real cost of this war (in terms of treasure, at least) against the rest of the budget and, if they cannot do so, to at least come before congress, bringing the cost of war to the national spotlight, every few months. This bill may be hard to pass, but easy to present to the American people, who are growing increasingly weary of the administration's wastefulness, in terms of lives, treasure, and the well-being of future generations.
Finally, passing (or at least forcing a very public vote on) these bills will make it easier to frame the final discussion: when do we get out of Iraq? Especially if we are able to pass the Troop Readiness portion (Murtha's proposals are already drawn-up and ready to go), the choice then becomes very clear: do we make a plan for a reasonable, orderly withdrawal now, or do we let our armed forces visibly and measurably (thanks to these new readiness benchmarks) disintegrate until they are no longer capable of defending us, much less waging war? Many of us (including many retired armed services leaders) feel that we already face that choice -- that if we don't plan for and begin withdrawal soon, our military will be severely damaged, and unable to fulfill its stated goals for years, possibly decades to come. The Troop Readiness bill would give us the tools to objectively measure that damage, so that the damage itself and the timeframe in which it becomes irreparable, is indisputable. It is time for Congress to acknowledge that we must get a significant number of our troops out of Iraq sooner rather than later. I am among those who feel we do owe the Iraqi people our protection -- after all, we destroyed their stable, if dictatorial and oppressive, government, and left them with nothing to replace it. But it's painfully clear that our ongoing presence and refusal to change course is exacerbating the problems, and that the increasing majority of Iraqis don't even want us there. And, if we don't get out before our own military crumbles under the burden, we won't even be able to protect ourselves any longer, much less the people of Iraq. But we can do nothing if the Democrats insist on grand, sweeping proposals which cannot hope to gain consensus.
Obviously, this idea isn't mine alone -- a lot of us are thinking this all over the progressive blogosphere (yes, I've finally adopted that grandiose, self-important term), and even increasingly in the halls of Congress. But I do think it is the best course of action. When a large group cannot come to consensus on everything at once, we must approach the issues one at a time. Even if we don't win every battle, we force everyone to clearly examine his or her position on each and every issue, right out there for the public to see. That, in itself, is progress.