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What Price for an "Advisory" Timetable? Bar an Unauthorized Attack on Iran

Robert Naiman

Congressional Democratic leaders are moving to make their proposed timetable for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq "advisory," the Washington Post reports.

Many Americans looking to Congress to take decisive action to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq will be very disappointed if this turns out to be true. And many anti-war Democrats in Congress will again face a dilemma: whether to support the leadership's strategy on the war in a close vote.

On the one hand, many were already justifiably unhappy with the bill that passed the House. On the other, many will find the political logic for supporting the leadership compelling, as they did before, knowing that ultimately, the political story that will be told will be either "Congress voted to condition funding on a timetable for withdrawal" or it won't be. Congressional action moves the debate forward in a unique way. As even Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has acknowledged, the Congressional debate has already had a positive impact.

This is worth considering now, because if the outcome, ultimately, is going to be that the House is going to accept the leadership's strategy, more or less, of passing something closer to the Senate version, then it's worth considering whether the more anti-war Democrats in Congress could win something substantive for going along.

Last time, the Out of Iraq caucus won a commitment from Speaker Pelosi that the provision barring an attack on Iran without Congressional authorization, dropped from the supplemental, would be voted on at a later date. The "later date" is likely to be the defense authorization bill, The Hill reports, with Senator Jim Webb and many House Democrats pushing for a vote on the Iran provision.

Since the "deal" on the supplemental is being re-opened with the proposed removal of binding language on the timetable for withdrawal, it makes sense to re-open it from the other side. In particular, it makes sense to put barring an unauthorized attack on Iran back on the table. Doing so would move the debate forward on U.S. policy towards Iran, even if the effort to enact this provision into law, or even to get it through the House or the Senate, is ultimately unsuccessful in this round.

The logic for doing so is the same that Secretary Gates acknowledged: Congressional action moves the debate forward. So far the debate around the Iran provision has been, relative to the debate around the Iraq withdrawal provisions, an insider game. The debate around the Iran provision has mainly been reported in the "insider" press, not outside.

In the "insider" game, insider forces, like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, have the most leverage. Contrary to the beliefs of many, it is possible to beat AIPAC in Congress, as was demonstrated when Americans for Peace Now, the Israel Policy Forum, Brit Tzedek v'Shalom, and others beat AIPAC on the "Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act." But this requires extending the debate beyond the usual suspects.

If a significant bloc of Congressional Democrats were to say, we will go along with the leadership on this, but in exchange we want something that really restricts the ability of the Administration to unilaterally pursue a policy of military confrontation with Iran, and forces the Administration to pursue a policy of serious diplomacy, that would put the issue on the table for wider debate, even if the demand were not immediately successful.

Getting the debate out into the wider press would be a significant advance. It would send a signal to people in the region that Congress and the American people are not going to support a policy of military confrontation with Iran, so issues with Iran are going to have to be resolved diplomatically.

Robert Naiman is Senior Policy Analyst and National Coordinator at Just Foreign Policy .

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