Say it: escalation. More and more that's what the geniuses in Washington have come up with as a way of ending the war in Iraq. Instead of calling it an escalation of the war, they are using the military term of art, "surge." Ok, fine. Surge, escalation, "reset", call it what you will. The fact is that the American people voted in November to end the war in Iraq, and the White House has demonstrated that, kabuki-style consultations to the contrary, it just doesn't care.
Let's take as a given that adding more troops is a horrible idea, both strategically and morally bankrupt. How do the Democrats stop it from happening? Under the Authorization for the Use of Military Force, passed by Congress in late 2002, the President has fairly wide latitude to prosecute the war. The new Democratic-controlled Congress has two main sticks to wield: oversight hearings and the power of the purse. There's a lot of skittishness on the part of Democrats to use their power of the purse, because Republicans could then spin it as the Democrats "cutting funding for the troops." Spencer Ackerman laid out just such a scenario recently, and I understand where he's coming from. The right was able to construct a myth in the years after the end of the Vietnam war that Democrats ended the war by refusing to fund it after 1974. While this wasn't really true, the funding was cut-off only after Nixon had signed the peace treaty, it created an enduring right-wing bugaboo, one that Republicans now threaten to wield as a cudgel if Democrats attempt to use their power of the purse to end the occupation.
So how about this: Early next year, the president is going have to submit an emergency appropriations bill to continue to fund the war. The Democrats should respond in two ways. First, if by the time the appropriations bill is submitted, the president is still discussing escalating the war, Democrats should come up with a counter offer: they will only approve enough funding for the current troops and not one more. Second, the funding should only be approved for the first 90 days, after which time the administration will have to report comprehensively to Congress on what progress has been made in bringing the war to a conclusion.
It's certainly not an ideal strategy, insofar as it essentially maintains the status quo, but in the in the near term, the first priority for the Democrats has to be to use their newfound ability to stop this war from escalating.
© 2006 The Nation