There is no effective substitute for Congressional battles over funding the war. The "power of the purse" is the one clear, constitutionally protected power that Congress can exercise to terminate the American occupation of Iraq.
In a series of hard- fought budget battles over the past twelve months, antiwar members of Congress sustained a set of bruising defeats. Their efforts to mandate the withdrawal of US troops were thwarted by an unexpectedly solid phalanx of Republican legislators and a disappointing number of Democrats, who still favor an American military presence in Iraq.
With a national election pending, major Presidential candidates and members of Congress may share a desire to downplay these conflicts. Funding votes can illuminate where office-holders really stand at a time when a certain amount of fog and ambiguity benefits political campaigns. It is therefore not surprising that Senator Clinton has deftly changed the subject, challenging the White House on its plan to sign a formal agreement with the al-Maliki government that would authorize a long-term presence of US troops on Iraqi soil. Clinton has offered to sponsor legislation requiring the White House to obtain Congressional approval for such a deal.
While this is a fine idea, it is important to recognize that in the unlikely event that such legislation passed, the war would continue. By moving this to the top of the Iraq agenda, attention is diverted from the more politically potent but difficult issue of funding. There are already a bevy of politicians embracing the Clinton approach and there will surely be more.
It would be a great error and misfortune if some peace organizations around the country fell into line, as recent reports suggest. The only rationale for shifting positions is the string of losses that have been sustained. To this point, there have not been "enough votes" to attach requirements for troop withdrawal to the funding bills. But one might as well argue that since five years have elapsed and the Iraq war has not been stopped that peace advocates turn their attention to more tractable problems.
A casual perusal of the present crop of Presidential "front-runners" makes it decreasingly likely that any Chief Executive will take responsibility for ending this war. No matter who is in the White House, Congress will have to step up or the United States will never leave Iraq. The task for the peace movement is to insist that Congress do so.
"Not enough votes?" The remedy is to increase the numbers. It is not a remedy to squander limited energy on measures that miss the target. In the space of eighteen months, we have seen a significant increase in the number of House members and Senators willing to resist unconditional war funding and to insist on binding deadlines. We need more.
While the percentages are constantly shifting, the majority of people in the United States and Iraq want a definite plan to withdraw the troops. For the most part pro-war legislators, whether they are Republicans or Democrats, are voting in ways that are at odds with their own constituents. Their ability to do so depends on obfuscation of the issues. It is hard to find an office-holder, who does not have something negative to say about the way the Bush White House has conducted the war. That critical rhetoric easily lulls an inattentive electorate into thinking their views are being represented.
This is the place where the peace movement has already made a difference and has the potential to exert a more decisive influence this year. Members of Congress need to know that informed constituents are tracking their actual votes. Even more crucial is the communication of their record to the electorate. Until 2006, the Republican-controlled Congress allowed no debate on the war and limited legislation to straight up-and-down votes on funding with no opportunity for amendments on troop withdrawal. However, this past year there were many opportunities for legislators to register their convictions. Too many of them voted against efforts to bring the troops home. They will naturally hope that few people noticed.
Regardless of anyone's preference, the issue of funding is coming back. For FY 2008, President Bush asked for $196 billion dollar for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. So far Congress has only appropriated $70 billion. This means that sometime within the next few months, he will be returning to Capitol Hill with a demand for the remainder. Moreover, following the State of the Union the President will unveil his new budget for FY 2009, containing even more money for his failed Iraq policy.
Members of Congress should be on their feet, demanding accountability from this Administration and insisting on a binding plan to bring the troops home. Major sectors of the peace movement, including United for Peace and Justice, remain committed to a fight on this issue. Because of the impending election, this is the best possible time to draw clear lines and to force members of Congress to stand up and be counted. If that occurs, the vote tally will surely improve and some pro-war incumbents will be sent into early retirement. All of this is worth doing and must create a positive momentum extending into the next administration, enabling us to finally end this tragedy.
It has been undeniably frustrating to watch the Congress yield to White House pressure on a host of vital questions, including the war. However, once President Bush dispatched U.S. troops to Iraq and created predictable havoc, it was never going to be easy to get them out. All the more reason to avoid distraction and to remain focused on the real levers of change. For now, it is the money.