Say at least this for House Democrats: They are beginning to find the courage of their profoundly mistaken convictions. They have moved on from pretending that a nonbinding resolution against sending additional troops into Baghdad and Anbar Province is a serious blow against the war in Iraq to more strenuous attempts to handicap our prosecution of the fight there.
The House Appropriations Committee will take up a bill this week that would authorize $120 billion in additional spending to cover — among other things — the Iraq surge. Pelosi has known all along that refusing to fund the surge would be a political mistake, since it would open her Democrats to charges of defunding troops already in the field. At the same time, Pelosi’s liberal base — and much of her House majority — wants the war stopped, now. The bill tries to keep them happy by setting deadlines for troop withdrawals. President Bush would be told to certify in July, and then again in October, that the Iraqi government had met certain political and military benchmarks. The bill calls for withdrawing U.S. troops within 180 days if these benchmarks aren’t met (although Bush could waive them), and by September of 2008 no matter what. Democrats may also insert language “forbidding” the president to undertake military operations against Iran without congressional approval.
Although this doesn’t go as far as John Murtha’s proposal for readiness requirements that would have kept troops from deploying to Iraq, it is still a brazen attempt by the legislature to occupy executive territory. Congress hasn’t the power — and was not intended — to supervise the execution of military objectives, nor is its approval necessary for the commander-in-chief to use the armed forces as he sees fit. Congress can cut off funding from the military, and Pelosi has inched in that direction with this bill. Yet the bill does not actually exercise Congress’s power of the purse. It would expire at the end of September, and any actual defunding of Iraq operations — whether this year or next spring — would require the passage of additional legislation.
The bill does succeed in showing the emptiness of Pelosi’s claim that her Democrats support U.S. troops even as they oppose the war. The message is: We don’t believe you should be there; we don’t believe you can win (even as the surge shows early signs of progress); so be warned that we mean to pull the rug out from under you as soon as we can get away with it. Trying to avoid giving this impression, Pelosi has filled the bill with billions of dollars for veterans’ health care, new armored vehicles, and military operations in Afghanistan. But these gestures should — and probably will — ring hollow. They are on the order of buying a man a nice dinner after you have burned down his house.
Pelosi’s leftward lurch might backfire. Moderate House Democrats — many of whom won election in conservative districts — are not ready to declare Iraq a failure and give up. Pelosi may not be able to bring them together with the House’s unreformed liberals. If so, the spending bill will be defeated, and Pelosi will have succeeded only in alienating the moderate voters who delivered her speakership last fall. President Bush has promised to veto the bill if it reaches his desk. This would be a risk, since doing so might leave him without funds to fight the war; but the “let’s lose now” caucus — particularly in the Senate — is probably not big enough to force that choice upon him.
Regardless of the outcome, what cannot be doubted now is that the Democrats are the party of defeat in Iraq. They think the war is lost and are determined to block any effort to prove otherwise on the ground. We believe that the war is still worth trying to win, and that defeat would have long-lasting and dire strategic consequences for the U.S. But we’re glad the public is getting to see the Pelosi majority’s true colors.