A week or so ago, Rep. John Murtha embarrassed Democrats with a crude proposal to hamstring President Bush’s conduct of the Iraq War. He announced his plan — and said it would be the “real vote” — just as Democrats were voting on a non-binding resolution against the troop surge. He thus undermined the Democrats’ message that the non-binding measure actually mattered, and made it clear that Democrats wouldn’t be content with it: They wanted to go much further and use certain impossible-to-meet readiness standards to choke off reinforcements from reaching Iraq. Democrats appear already to be backing off from the Murtha proposal (it united Republicans and divided their own caucus), so now it is Sen. Carl Levin who is stepping into the breach with a crude proposal of his own.
Levin wants to repeal the 2002 authorization of the war and reauthorize a narrower range of objectives. He would limit our mission to counterterrorism, training for Iraqi troops, and border security, and set a March 31, 2008, goal for withdrawing most troops from Iraq. This proposal doesn’t even make sense on its face. Supporters of the Levin approach say it will keep us from being embroiled in a civil war in Baghdad. But al Qaeda in Iraq, a Sunni terrorist organization, is one of the combatants in that civil war. A sensible counterterrorism mission in Iraq will therefore inevitably involve fighting the Sunni insurgency in Baghdad, as well as restraining Shiite militias and buttressing the legitimately constituted government in order to prevent the Sunni population from being pushed farther into the insurgency’s arms. This is exactly what we’re doing, but Democrats apparently have no stomach for counterterrorism when it’s difficult and complex.
In any case, the Levin proposal is constitutionally dubious. If the reauthorization is merely hortatory it will have no force, while if it is more far-reaching it will trespass on the president’s authority to conduct the war as commander in chief. Congress is not fit — nor was it ever intended — to direct military operations. President Bush can continue to wage the war whether Congress authorizes certain portions of it or not. Levin argues that Congress can set the mission and then the president can decide how to discharge it, but this is basically a distinction without a difference, since a mission and its discharge are so intimately related. Indeed, Levin is proposing his reauthorization only because he wants to influence the discharge of our mission in Iraq.
Congress is not powerless here. It has an awesome power: to deny funds for the war and thereby end it entirely. If Levin wants U.S. combat operations to end by April 2008, he can simply work to cut off any funding past that date. But Democrats aren’t willing to weather the political attacks that would come with cutting off funding for troops in the field. On Meet the Press Sunday, Levin went so far as to call such a cut-off “the wrong thing to do, morally.” So he is denying to himself and his party the one constitutional and effective way to stop the war. Such are the contortions of a party that doesn’t have the courage of its antiwar convictions.