Carolyn Eisenberg: Congress is sorely lacking in courage

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Carolyn Eisenberg is a professor of U.S. foreign policy at Hofstra University and the author of a book on the American occupation of Germany.]

It is now confirmed that the Bush administration is adding 30,000 troops to the U.S. forces already in Iraq.

This might surprise voters, who in November clearly rejected the White House approach. But, while the president openly defies public opinion, the Democratic Congress is unwilling to exercise its constitutional right to stop him.

On Capitol Hill, the House is about to pass a bill, laden with conditions the administration must fulfill, to obtain the $93.4 billion it requested for Iraq and Afghanistan. The bill reached the House floor yesterday. With White House spokesmen denouncing the plan and the president threatening to veto, one might conclude that something meaningful is afoot.

But there is less here than meets the eye. The House bill gives the president all the money he wants while establishing conditions so porous that the White House can easily evade them. It laudably stipulates that no military units should be sent to Iraq unless they are fully trained, equipped and "mission capable," but it permits the president to waive that requirement.

It specifies "political and military benchmarks" the Iraqi government must meet if U.S. combat troops are to remain, but it leaves it to Bush to "certify" these achievements. There is a deadline for the removal of these troops, but it is 18 months down the road and does not include all military personnel.

The Senate version will almost certainly be weaker since its leaders prefer to talk about "goals" rather than deadlines.

Given such a strong electoral mandate, how is Congress' capitulation to be explained?

Now that Democratic leaders are in the majority, they face a genuine dilemma. If they heed their anti-war base and refuse all funding, they will be leaving troops in the field without supplies and equipment the Pentagon insists are needed.

There is, however, an obvious solution, one that surfaced during the Vietnam War. The bipartisan McGovern-Hatfield Amendment of 1970 provided funding for the war, but tied it to an early date for troop removal.

This amendment never passed but in successive incarnations received a great many votes. It also produced significant effects. With a congressional defeat constantly on the horizon, it forced President Richard Nixon to keep reducing the number of troops - staying, as he put it, "one step ahead of the sheriff." Moreover, the clarity of the legislation gave voters a way of identifying true anti-war lawmakers.

The Progressive Caucus in the House last week put forward a comparable measure. As presented by Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), it calls for a "fully funded" safe and orderly withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. This approach has been dismissed by the House leadership, which has been unwilling to permit a vote on the House floor.

This is not some far-out "liberal idea," but reflects the outlook of the majority of Americans, who now see the Iraq war as a fiasco and want the troops home within the year....

In 1970, Sen. George McGovern (D-S.D.) urged colleagues to halt the carnage in Vietnam: "It does not take any courage at all for a congressman or a senator or a president to wrap himself in the flag and say we are staying, because it is not our blood that is being shed."

Today women as well as men are fighting in Iraq, but the obligation of Congress to behave responsibly is undiminished.

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