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God's Politics

President Bush continues to view what is now largely a complex civil war in Iraq as a critical test of the United States’ “War on Terrorism,” and a decisive global ideological conflict between democratic tolerance and fundamentalist extremism. Further, the president persists in believing that democratic governance in Iraq can be imposed through U.S. military force. Both of these assumptions, in my judgment, have been wrong from the start. But, given the president’s latest explanation of his goals and strategy to the nation, his steadfast convictions mean that the U.S. will remain militarily enmeshed in Iraq for the next two years of his presidency, unless Congress acts decisively to the contrary.

What exactly can Congress do if a majority of members disagree with the president’s policy? Recent discussion of these options seems confused. The perspective I offer comes from my experience as legislative assistant to Senator Mark O. Hatfield during the time of the Vietnam War. Let me set that scene briefly.

Trying to change direction from President Johnson’s Vietnam policies, newly-elected President Nixon proclaimed, in 1969, a plan to shift more military responsibility to the South Vietnamese (“de-Americanization of the war”). But his actions, including expanded bombing of the North and the invasion of Cambodia in the spring of 1970, intensified and prolonged American military involvement. Mass demonstrations at that time (including the killing of students at Kent State) riveted the country’s attention and isolated the president. Up until then, members of Congress opposed to the war had held hearings (especially Senator Fulbright’s Foreign Relations Committee), written letters to the president, and made statements. But the only real power of the Congress to change policy was the power of the purse.

In early 1970 Senators Hatfield and McGovern introduced legislation to cut off appropriations for U.S. combat military involvement in Vietnam by a date certain in the future. The idea was to give the U.S. military sufficient time for an orderly withdrawal; in the legislative process, that evolved from six months to a year’s time. In the mean time, all necessary appropriations and support would be given to support U.S. troops. The point was to establish a specific date that would terminate the combat role of the U.S. military.

This legislative effort was always bipartisan. Hatfield was a Republican, joined by others, and McGovern a Democrat. When this measure was first brought to a vote, 39 Senators were in support. And then, a modified version with the same effect, offered by Senator Lawton Chiles, received 50 votes — one short of the number needed to pass.

I recall this history simply to point out that this would seem to be the only realistic option for Congress today, in my judgment, if it wishes to oppose the president’s policy effectively. The Constitutional framers purposely gave the power to both declare and to pay for war to the Congress. It can choose not to support present policy by withholding appropriations. But the only responsible way to do so, the way that insures support of troops engaged in battle and provides an orderly time to change course, is to set a certain date in the future when such appropriations would no longer be approved. That avoids the politically indefensible position of depriving funds for supporting soldiers deployed in the field.

This, of course, is risky business. Like others who contribute to this God’s Politic’s blog, I am a follower of Jesus. So the question I keep asking is, what option before us holds the best hope of eventually reducing the terrible bloodshed? Bringing still more U.S. troops to serve essentially as a police force on the streets of Baghdad seems, to my way of thinking, to be a recipe for endless conflict. Setting a date, such as a year, at which point everyone will know — all the Iraqi factions, the neighboring nations, and U.S. military and diplomatic planners — that U.S. combat operations will cease offers the best hope, in my judgment, for spurring an internal political solution to what is largely an internal, sectarian civil conflict.

The U.S. is in a moral quagmire in Iraq. No option is without uncertainty, risk, and ambiguity. We can’t predict for sure the results of these actions. But setting a reasonable timetable that withdraws, rather than increases, U.S. military troops could change the political dynamics, both within Iraq and among its neighbors and the international community. That is the prerequisite for a political solution that has any hope of curtailing bloodshed.

Wes Granberg-Michaelson is general secretary of the Reformed Church in America, and a board member of Sojourners/Call to Renewal.

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