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Four Thousand US Deaths Should Spark Congressional Debate

Robert Naiman

As such things are counted, this past weekend we crossed the threshold of four thousand U.S. deaths in Iraq. This fact, in itself, should spark congressional debate on what the U.S. is doing in Iraq, and how and when we are going to get out.

The Washington/pundit conventional wisdom since late last year has been that Iraq has receded as an issue, as a result of the "success" of the surge in reducing violence, or because the majority in Congress has given up on the idea of trying to force a change in course under the present administration, because there doesn't yet exist an effective Senate majority for any action which would force a change in course.

This misses a lot. It misses the fact that the "surge" has failed to produce national political reconciliation in Iraq, its stated goal. It misses the fact that reduced violence in Iraq (a welcome reduction to a still intolerable level) is as much, if not more, a result of the U.S. accord with part of the Sunni insurgency and the cease-fire of Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army, than of the increased deployment of U.S. troops. Regardless of what one thinks of these developments, they are essentially diplomatic and political rather than military developments, and could both easily unravel if there isn't significant progress towards political resolution of Iraq's conflicts, leaving us back in the situation that existed before the surge, many violent deaths ago.

The conventional wisdom also misses important facts about the role of congressional debate in our national political life, and the role of congressional debate in the process of policy change.

Congressional action and debate shapes press coverage, public opinion and even public knowledge. Consider the poll earlier this month by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, "Awareness of Iraq War Fatalities Plummets."

It found that:

Public awareness of the number of American military fatalities in Iraq has declined sharply since last August. Today, just 28% of adults are able to say that approximately 4,000 Americans have died in the Iraq war. As of March 10, the Department of Defense had confirmed the deaths of 3,974 U.S. military personnel in Iraq.

In August 2007, 54% correctly identified the fatality level at that time (about 3,500 deaths). In previous polls going back to the spring of 2004, about half of respondents could correctly estimate the number of U.S. fatalities around the time of the survey.

Pew notes that "the drop in awareness comes as press attention to the war has waned." The percentage of news stories devoted to the war has sharply declined since last summer.

The fall-off in press coverage has more than one cause, but a key cause was the abandonment of congressional debate. Congressional debate is an effect, but it is also a cause. And the abandonment of debate led to a self-fulfilling prophecy: by abandoning debate, Congress sent a signal to the news media that Iraq was as not important as it had been judged previously, the news media reduced coverage, the public became less-informed, and this contributed to the perception that Iraq was a less important issue.

Surely the fact that just over a quarter of American adults could say about how many Americans had been killed in Iraq represents an indictment of our media and the actions of our political leaders.

The conventional wisdom judged it reasonable for Congress to abandon debate when it proved unable to maintain a majority for effective action to force a change in course. There is a certain superficial logic to this: focus on what you can accomplish. But this misses the fact that the decision of Congress to debate or not to debate has consequences, even when effective action is beyond their immediate grasp. The Vietnam War was not ended all at once. There were many votes which were lost by opponents of the war, all of which contributed over time to the erosion of support which helped force the U.S. withdrawal. In a context in which the conventional wisdom is that Iraq is no longer an important issue, having a significant congressional debate would in itself be an important victory towards ending the war.

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

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