Tuesday, February 13, 2007

The House debate and the politics of pretense

The debate in the House of Representatives over the war in Iraq, which started today after four years of institutional torpor, is actually an elaborate game of pretend. The Democratic leaders are pretending that they have no antiwar agenda beyond the passage of a mild resolution that “disapproves” of President Bush’s troop escalation. And the Republican leaders are pretending that they actually still have faith in what Bush is doing.

The Democratic pretense was obvious on Sunday, when Hoyer appeared with House GOP leader John Boehner on Meet the Press. Boehner quickly baited Hoyer by contending, “Let’s be honest about it. What we’re going to be doing this week is the first step in your effort to cut off funds for troops.” And Hoyer replied, “No, our resolution does not say anything about cutting off funds, John.”

Hoyer was correct, in the literal sense, when he said that the resolution doesn’t talk about funding cutoffs. But he was incorrect to imply that Democrats don’t see the resolution as the crucial first step toward a more substantive antiwar agenda. Of course they do – because their own people have said so.

For instance, it has been widely reported that Speaker Pelosi has already met with the liberals in her caucus, and urged them to back the non-binding resolution as merely the first step. And some Democratic members haven’t been shy about saying so. Carol Shea-Porter, who was elected last November amidst antiwar fervor in New Hampshire, has referred to the resolution as “training wheels for the real thing,” and Joe Sestak, the former three-star admiral who was elected last November in suburban Philadelphia, has already introduced a bill calling for a funding cutoff on Dec. 31. He has called the resolution “necessary” but “insufficient.” This afternoon, during the House debate, Democratic congresswoman Lynn Woolsley touted her own bill to pull out troops within six months of enactment, and warned that, after the nonbinding resolution is passed, "This body will have no choice but to take further steps."

One might argue that the Democratic leadership's pretense is quite unnecessary – given the fact that, at this point, the House Democratic leaders appear to be lagging behind public opinion. As evidenced by the new USA Today-Gallup poll, most Americans don’t think that an anti-Bush resolution is sufficient; they want some raw meat in their antiwar diet. Only 51 percent back the resolution. By contrast, 57 percent want Congress to cap the number of U.S. troops in Iraq, and 63 percent want Congress to enact a timetable and pull out all the soldiers by the end of next year. These numbers are driven by strong independent voter sentiment, and by growing dissent even among Republicans (roughly three in 10).

No wonder the Democrats’ liberal base is hungry for substantive congressional action. After all, antiwar sentiment is now the centrist position in American politics. Consider the views of William Odom, a retired Army lieutenant general who directed the National Security Agency under Ronald Reagan. He argued last weekend for a troop pullout: “Fighting on now simply prolongs our losses and blocks the way to a new strategy. Getting out of Iraq is the pre-condition for creating new strategic options.”

But the House Democratic leadership is staying in pretense mode this week, because its top priority is to attract some Republican support for the resolution and thus demonstrate (for the first time) bipartisan House opposition to Bush. As Pelosi put it today, on the House floor, the core theme of the resolution is “No more blank checks for President Bush on Iraq.” If the resolution contained funding cutoff language, it would be easier for wavering Republicans to stay within their own ranks.

Indeed, there are reports that anywhere from 20 to 60 House Republicans could break ranks and register their disapproval. The Republican dilemma is serious. Outside the reddest congressional districts, antiwar sentiment continues to rise, thereby jeopardizing some members’ re-election prospects in 2008. It speaks volumes that Howard Coble and Walter Jones, two of the most outspoken Republicans in favor of the anti-Bush resolution, hail from North Carolina, a red state with a strong military presence. Another GOP dissenter is Wayne Gilchrest, an ex-Marine and Purple Heart winner, who represents a rural district in Maryland. These Republicans are a more accurate barometer of the restive national mood than the House Republican leaders who are trying to sustain the pretense of unceasing support for the Decider’s mission.

Boehner, on the House floor this afternoon, made the usual arguments against any expression of dissent, contending that any opposition to Bush would be tantamount to a victory for al Qaeda and the terrorists, who “are trying to divide us here at home.” But the neoconservative enablers of this war know full well that, at this point, the Republican leaders are more dutiful than diehard in their support. The uber-neoconservative, William Kristol, said as much this week in his Weekly Standard magazine. He is not satisfied with a show of requisite loyalty; he wants to see some real enthusiasm. He writes, “The large majority of Republicans continue to support the effort in Iraq. But they could do so more outspokenly and more aggressively. They shouldn't view defending the war as simply a grim duty.”

The duty is grim, however, because the Republican loyalists are being hit with fresh embarrassments virtually every day. I mentioned here last Friday that the Pentagon’s acting inspector general has now rebuked neoconservative apparatchik Douglas Feith for concocting prewar evidence that erroneously put Saddam Hussein in bed with al Qaeda (evidence that multiple government agencies and commissions have soundly rejected). But that’s not the end of that story, because Feith has been keeping it alive by digging himself a deeper hole.

The other day on Fox News, for instance, he disputed the Pentagon report by contending that “nobody in my office ever claimed there was an operational relationship between Iraq and al Qaeda.”

Oh really? What’s fascinating about these war planners is that they seem to believe that whatever they claim today will somehow wipe clean whatever they did yesterday. Here’s the factual record: On Oct. 27, 2003, Feith sent a memo to the Senate Intelligence Committee, defending the prewar findings ginned up by his Pentagon office. Those findings claimed a longstanding relationship between Hussein and al Qaeda.

How do we know all this? Because the Feith memo was leaked to a prominent conservative media outlet, which promptly detailed the memo and concluded: “Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein had an operational relationship from the early 1990s to 2003…. there can no longer be any serious argument about whether Saddam Hussein's Iraq worked with Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda to plot against Americans.”

And what outlet wrote up the Feith memo? Bill Kristol’s Weekly Standard.

No wonder the House Republicans are about to endure a very long week.