Press reports are casting yesterday’s Senate vote in favor of a deadline for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq as a victory for the new Democratic majority in the Senate. But the cost of winning that two-vote majority could have devastating consequences for our efforts in Iraq and the broader War on Terror. If this was a victory, it was a Pyrrhic one at best.
Yesterday’s vote was potentially devastating to our mission in Iraq because telling the enemy the exact date you plan to leave is the surest way to guarantee defeat. It tells them only to rest, refit, and re-plan until the date the Democrat Congress circled on a calendar for American forces to give up and leave. A war spending bill that includes such a date is no war spending bill at all — it’s a prolonged and costly notice of surrender.
Which is precisely why President Bush has said for weeks that he’ll veto any emergency spending bill that includes a surrender date. The president has the common sense to know that politicians in Washington have no business telling commanders in the field when the fight is won. And they certainly shouldn’t be telling those commanders that the fight is over whether it’s won or not, twelve months out, regardless of the circumstances on the ground.
And in a speech this morning, his first since the Senate vote, the president wasn’t backing down. “Some Democrats believe that by delaying funding for our troops, they can force me to accept restrictions on our commanders that I believe would make withdrawal and defeat more likely,” he said. “That’s not going to happen.”
The Senate vote, like a similar vote in the House of Representatives last week, was also a memo to our friends. Millions of brave Iraqis have dared to stand with us because we promised to stand with them until they were secure. The Senate reneged on that promise last night, telling these men and women we’ve changed our minds and that we now intend to leave them on their own regardless of the consequences. It is indeed ironic, as Senator Lieberman has noted, that many of those who would now turn their backs on Iraqis, exposing them to slaughter, are the very ones who rightly call on the U.S. to help oppressed peoples in Darfur and elsewhere around the world.
Most Democrats were in agreement until recently on the foolishness of setting a surrender date. Senator Clinton told the Village Voice in early 2005 that she didn’t think “you should ever telegraph your intentions to the enemy so they can await you.” And just last June, Senator Obama made clear he agreed with her at least on this point. “A hard and fast, arbitrary deadline for withdrawal,” he said, “offers our commanders in the field … insufficient flexibility …”
Why have Democrats flipped on the wisdom of setting a date for withdrawal? They haven’t. The foolishness of timelines is beyond dispute. Yesterday’s vote was instead a message to the president that Democrats will defy him at every turn on a war they already think is lost. Yet the only ones directly affected in the short term by such defiance are American soldiers in Iraq and their families here at home. By forcing a presidential veto and delaying the shipment of supplies, they’re the ones who lose.
All of which would be an excellent lesson in why the Framers placed the power of conducting a war into the hands of a single commander-in-chief rather than 535 members of Congress. Yesterday’s vote sent a message, but not to President Bush. It’s a message to our enemies that the U.S. Senate has given up on this fight. It’s a message to our friends that their protection is no longer a priority. And it’s a message to our soldiers that we’ll continue to equip them for a war we’ve already decided is lost.
Some have said that only a political solution will end the violence in Iraq. But we can’t pretend the Iraqis will forge a political solution unless they’re secure in their homes and on their streets. That’s the key to the Petraeus strategy, and to our efforts in Iraq.
We’ve been pursuing that new course for the last few months. A Democratic-controlled Senate sent a new commander into the field of battle by a vote of 81-0 to carry it out. And we’ve seen early signs of success — enough to believe this new approach was exactly the right thing to do. But tying the general’s hands, and arming the enemy arrayed against him with our surrender date, will ensure failure before he ever has a chance to succeed.
By using his veto pen swiftly, President Bush has an opportunity to remind our friends and our enemies that we have some fight in us yet.
– U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is the Senate’s Republican Leader