WASHINGTON -- As the drama plays out on Capitol Hill over additional funding for the Iraq war, the issue of how best to pressure its shaky government to get moving is the real stickler.The president's veto sent a message of standing fast, but his changing language and the willingness of congressional Republicans to consider benchmarks represent a welcome sign of political reality creeping in.
But a deal still won't be easy. When Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said recently that the Iraq war was "lost," administration allies threw the political book at him. Vice President Dick Cheney predictably thundered that Reid was "uninformed" and being "cynical" for "political advantage." That would be a subject about which Cheney knows a great deal, being one of its greatest practitioners. But Reid has apparently paid no political price for being so blunt.
Not even an unusually hostile column questioning Reid's judgment by a major Washington pundit, David Broder, had much impact.
Public anti-war sentiment continues to grow; the president's popularity remains mired in polls below 40 percent. Cheney's credibility is so low among all but hard-core hawks that his attacks produce more yawns than yowls. We've heard his stale views for too long.
It's time the administration got "a clue," as Speaker Nancy Pelosi put it. Support for the Democratic Congress, which has staggered a bit, was temporarily weakened by the majority's feeble first attempt to stop the war this year with a non-binding resolution -- one that Bush felt free to ignore. According to National Journal analyst Charlie Cook, what most voters didn't like was the non-binding part. An exercise in futility was seen for what it was. Both parties face internal political divisions, driven by impatience to get out of the Iraq mess into which Bush got us and fear of seeming to desert our troops, which nobody wants to do. But the administration's battle cry that al-Qaida will come after us if we leave Iraq is wearing thin. The president himself is gradually dialing back his swaggering stance on Iraq. Victory for American intervention has gone through many definitions, from eliminating (non-existent) weapons of mass destruction to spreading democracy throughout the Middle East. But faced with mounting chaos in Iraq and a failure to establish any pre-9/11 connection, President Bush this week fell back on a very narrow definition of victory.
It sounded like the precursor to an exit line. "Success is not no violence," Bush said. Huh? His spokesman, Tony Snow, was unprepared to explain. "'I don't have an answer to that," he said. The pattern here disturbingly echoes the last years of the Vietnam War, when veteran Sen. George Aiken, R-Vt., advised President Johnson to get out.
"Call it a victory and go home," Aiken said.
Alas, Johnson couldn't bring himself to do it. And, so far, Bush can't either. But the political, foreign policy and pragmatic dynamics say he will, and must.
He'd like to leave the retreat to his successor, so he can claim that he didn't give up. But that stall is running out of time. Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., the most conservative, pro-Bush vote among Senate Democrats, returned this week from Iraq with grave misgivings, saying that despite a shift of strategy and an influx of new troops, "Things have not changed for the good." The public posturing is confusing, but not necessarily reflective of what goes on behind the scenes. Everyone in authority recognizes the importance of this exercise and wants to do the right thing, if they can just agree on what it might be. The White House has made tentative steps toward compromise and so have the Democratic congressional leaders. To be credible, a new funding bill must include goals, or benchmarks, or whatever you want to call them -- some realistic way to measure progress in Iraq.
Bush -- who calls himself "the commander guy" -- said that we should have some notion by the end of summer whether his so-called military surge is working.
So then what? In response to this call to action, Iraq's befuddled parliament decided to take two summer months off to relax. It was only four months ago that Bush declared U.S. support was not open-ended and he would hold the Iraqi government to " benchmarks." It sounded decisive, even akin to leadership.
But the benchmarks weren't popular in the Iraqi ruling circles, and local bigwigs ignored them. So not much happened.
And our tough guy reaction? To prevent wonderful country singer Joan Baez, a veteran war protester, from entertaining our neglected wounded soldiers at Walter Reed Hospital. Oh, my.
Marianne Means is a Washington, D.C., columnist with Hearst Newspapers.
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