A Hostage Situation
A Hostage Situation
There are two ways to describe the confrontation between Congress and the Bush administration over funding for the Iraq surge. You can pretend that it's a normal political dispute. Or you can see it for what it really is: a hostage situation, in which a beleaguered President Bush, barricaded in the White House, is threatening dire consequences for innocent bystanders — the troops — if his demands aren't met.
If this were a normal political dispute, Democrats in Congress would clearly hold the upper hand: by a huge margin, Americans say they want a timetable for withdrawal, and by a large margin they also say they trust Congress, not Mr. Bush, to do a better job handling the situation in Iraq.
But this isn't a normal political dispute. Mr. Bush isn't really trying to win the argument on the merits. He's just betting that the people outside the barricade care more than he does about the fate of those innocent bystanders.
What's at stake right now is the latest Iraq "supplemental." Since the beginning, the administration has refused to put funding for the war in its regular budgets. Instead, it keeps saying, in effect: "Whoops! Whaddya know, we're running out of money. Give us another $87 billion."
At one level, this is like the behavior of an irresponsible adolescent who repeatedly runs through his allowance, each time calling his parents to tell them he's broke and needs extra cash.
What I haven't seen sufficiently emphasized, however, is the disdain this practice shows for the welfare of the troops, whom the administration puts in harm's way without first ensuring that they'll have the necessary resources.
As long as a G.O.P.-controlled Congress could be counted on to rubber-stamp the administration's requests, you could say that this wasn't a real problem, that the administration's refusal to put Iraq funding in the regular budget was just part of its usual reliance on fiscal smoke and mirrors. But this time Mr. Bush decided to surge additional troops into Iraq after an election in which the public overwhelmingly rejected his war — and then dared Congress to deny him the necessary funds. As I said, it's an act of hostage-taking.
Actually, it's even worse than that. According to reports, the final version of the funding bill Congress will send won't even set a hard deadline for withdrawal. It will include only an "advisory," nonbinding date. Yet Mr. Bush plans to veto the bill all the same — and will then accuse Congress of failing to support the troops.
The whole situation brings to mind what Abraham Lincoln said, in his great Cooper Union speech in 1860, about secessionists who blamed the critics of slavery for the looming civil war: "A highwayman holds a pistol to my ear, and mutters through his teeth, 'Stand and deliver, or I shall kill you, and then you will be a murderer!' "
So how should Congress respond to Mr. Bush's threats?
Everyone talks about the political risks of confrontation, recalling the backlash when Newt Gingrich shut down the federal government in 1995. But there's a big difference between trying to force a fairly popular president to accept deep cuts in Medicare — which is what the 1995 confrontation was about — and trying to get a deeply unpopular, distrusted president to set some limits on an immensely unpopular war.
Meanwhile, there are big political risks on the other side. If Congress responds to a presidential veto by offering an even weaker bill, voters may well react with disgust, concluding that the whole debate over the war was nothing but political theater.
Anyway, never mind the political calculations. Confronting Mr. Bush on Iraq has become a patriotic duty.
The fact is that Mr. Bush's refusal to face up to the failure of his Iraq adventure, his apparent determination to spend the rest of his term in denial, has become a clear and present danger to national security. Thanks to the demands of the Iraq war, we're already a superpower without a strategic reserve, unable to respond to crises that might erupt elsewhere in the world. And more and more military experts warn that repeated deployments in Iraq — now extended to 15 months — are breaking the back of our volunteer military.
If nothing is done to wind down this war during the 21 months — 21 months! — Mr. Bush has left, the damage may be irreparable.
Paul Krugman is a Professor of Economics at Princeton University and a regular Times columnist.
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