Politics & Policy

Counterproductive Symbolism

At a time of crisis, count on U.S. senators to step up with symbolic measures that hold absolutely zero risk to themselves. That is what Senators Biden, Levin, and Hagel have done by offering their non-binding resolution disapproving of the Bush surge in Iraq. The only effect the resolution can possibly have is to weaken the commander in chief and dampen the morale of U.S. troops. These senators in effect want to say to the thousands of troops who will be part of the surge, “The U.S. Senate has no confidence that you can possibly accomplish your mission. Carry on!”

We would like to express surprise that Chuck Hagel, a Republican and a Vietnam veteran, would aid such a naked partisan ploy — but we can’t. He’s the master of antiwar sound bites that are pitch-perfect for drawing Sunday-talk-show invitations, and this kind of attention-getting symbolism is a natural for him.

As many as ten Republicans could follow Hagel and support the resolution of disapproval, a collection of moderates and senators facing reelection in 2008 who want to protect their political interests at all costs. That could bring support for the resolution close to 60 votes, because Democrats will swing behind it with near-unanimity. Both the Democratic Leadership Council and the group Third Way support a no-confidence resolution, a sign that the hawkish center of the Democratic party has entirely collapsed on the Iraq War. The only question is how far left the party will lurch.

Hillary Clinton, who has long been a responsible liberal critic of the war, concluded after a one-day trip to Iraq that she supports capping the number of troops in Iraq at current levels, a version of Ted Kennedy’s proposal to defund the surge (although funding for the surge already exists for the time being). Clinton’s newfound support for this constitutionally dubious measure has, we’re supposed to believe, nothing to do with John Edwards’s plea on Monday to cut off funds for the war, or with Barack Obama’s imminent entry into the race. For all his flaws, President Bush at least has the virtue of focusing on how to try to win the war, when all around him the nation’s other leaders are playing cheap politics.

This is not to suggest that there aren’t legitimate questions about the surge. Are there enough troops? Will the chain of command be clear enough? Can the Iraqis be trusted to take the lead? It is entirely legitimate for Congress to probe all these matters, and perhaps to pressure the administration into changing. But Biden, Levin, Hagel, et al. can’t resist counterproductive symbolism.

Critics of the war once believed that we needed more troops to succeed in Iraq. Now that they have been shown to be correct, and President Bush is finally acting on that fact, all the critics want to condemn the move. If they think the war is hopeless, they should put their own political necks on the line and try to cut off funds. We think that would be a terrible course to take on the merits, but at least those pushing it would be acting with honesty and a kind of honor — qualities in short supply at the moment in the U.S. Senate.


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