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The American Prospect

The GOP's Spineless Sages

Harold Meyerson

Anyone searching for the highest forms of invertebrate life need look no further than the floor of the U.S. Senate last week and this. These spineless specimens go by various names -- Republican moderates; respected senior Republicans; Dick Lugar, John Warner, Pete Domenici, George Voinovich.They have seen the folly of our course in Iraq. The mission, they understand, cannot be accomplished. The Iraqi government, they discern, is hopelessly sectarian.

In wisdom, they are paragons. In action, they are nullities.

Perhaps they are simply farsighted. They have seen the problem with Nouri al-Maliki's administration in faraway Baghdad. They seem unable to see the problem with the Bush administration at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue.

The Lugars and the Warners seem to share with many of their Democratic colleagues a common assessment of our presence in Iraq: It has become an unfocused and costly occupation in a land beset by civil war. We should, in good order, pull back, leaving behind only what we need to deter jihadists who threaten us.

Problem is, the Warners and the Lugars don't actually want to act on their perception. They oppose the legislation by Democrats Carl Levin and Jack Reed that would require the administration to begin reducing our forces in Iraq within 120 days and to remove all but that anti-jihadist force by next April.

Instead, they have drafted legislation that would require the administration to draw up plans for a pullback -- but not to implement them. Indeed, they act continually as if George Bush and Dick Cheney are amenable to argument and open to facts. "I'm hopeful they'll change their minds," Domenici said last week after a meeting with national security adviser Stephen Hadley. "I think we should continue to ratchet up the pressure, in addition to our words," said Voinovich, "to let the White House know we are very sincere."


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Very sincere -- now there's a threat that concentrates the mind. These Republicans who proclaim their independence without acting on it have failed to come to terms with the single most important reality confronting them: that Bush and Cheney will keep the war going until Congress forces them to stop.

A few Republicans have come to terms with that. When the Senate votes, probably today, on ending the Republican filibuster against the Levin-Reed legislation, three Republicans -- Chuck Hagel, Gordon Smith and Olympia Snowe-- have pledged to side with those who would compel the administration to begin withdrawals. But for all the sound and fury coming from the senior Republicans ostensibly in revolt, none of them is poised to join the three. None is willing to challenge the White House on the conduct of the war in the only way that counts -- by mandating a shift in policy.

Instead, these senior Republicans speak loudly and carry no stick -- indeed, they speak loudly precisely because they are so stickless. In a July 9 speech on the Senate floor, Warner warned that this is "a time in our history unlike any I have ever witnessed." He spoke of telling administration leaders about the need to change course and added, "I was asked by the press whether I thought they'd brush it off and I resoundingly replied, 'No.' "

Resoundingly, huh? If Warner wanted to be taken seriously, he could gird his loins, vote for a date certain to withdraw troops -- and then he could whisper to the press and still be heard a lot more clearly than he is being heard today.

Besides, Warner chaired the Senate's Armed Services Committee, and Lugar its Foreign Relations Committee, from the start of the war until January, when the Democrats took control of Congress. By then, the war had become so patently absurd that the Republicans were voted out of power on Capitol Hill. But did Warner and Lugar hold oversight hearings on the war? Did they propose a different course from the president's when they had more power to affect the war's conduct than they have now?

There would have been ample precedent if they had. In February 1966, just 18 months after Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution and just 15 months after Lyndon Johnson was elected president by a huge margin, Arkansas Democrat and Foreign Relations Committee Chairman J. William Fulbright held exhaustive and critical hearings on the Vietnam War, concluding that the war had become a quagmire. Fulbright incurred LBJ's enmity for his troubles, but the hearings laid the basis for our ultimate withdrawal from that war. The gutless wonders of today's GOP never could bring themselves to chart such a course, and it is their continued deference to Bush and Cheney that keeps our soldiers in Iraq to this day. Harold Meyerson is executive editor of The American Prospect and a columnist for the Washington Post. Click here to read more about him.

© 2007 The American Prospect

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