Anti-war activists have gained ground — both at the polls and in the polls — over the past two months. A new Democratic majority is in place in Congress, and surveys find well over half the public now wants to get the United States out of Iraq. Not one American in five supports the idea of sending more troops to fight there.
Yet, before this month is over, opponents of the war will get a double dose of disappointment.
First, they will hear with disbelief the speech President Bush gives this week on the situation in Iraq. The president wants more troops to stay longer tours with greater focus on physically protecting the Iraqi population. This dashes the hopes of those who thought the strong Democratic tide of last November would restrain the White House and begin the painful process of withdrawing from the Iraqi quagmire.
Second, the same frustrated activists will be at least equally distressed that the Democrats, empowered as the majority in House and Senate by dint of those November elections, will not be able to stop the greater troop commitment. They may not even be able to trim the $100 billion in fresh funding for Iraq (and Afghanistan) the administration will seek next month.
Parsing the Iraq funding request to remove logistic support for these men and women sounds obvious, but turns out to be practically implausible. There will be no easy target in that funding (an "urgent supplemental" to be expedited even as Congress begins considering the regular budget for the next fiscal year). No portion of the request will be labeled "escalation" or even "surge." Indeed, the higher troop levels will not take the form of new recruits or new deployments; they will be the same men and women who are in Iraq now or going back there soon.
That means challenging the president on his escalation policy will quickly translate into a new burden for the troops in the field. It will be easy to argue that any cutback means U.S. troops are being squeezed between the rival parties back home — even as they are caught between the warring factions in Iraq. And that is simply a political non-starter.
Despite calls from the anti-war base, and despite the efforts of outspoken anti-war members — from Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) to Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA) — the Democrats are not even close to the consensus required to take that step. And it would take a mass desertion of the White House among the ranks of the Republican minorities in House and Senate to make up for the votes the Democrats cannot muster.
Anti-war activists are right to say that the Democrats ought to be standing up for all the voters who want the United States out of Iraq. More than any other issue, war fatigue added new votes to the Democrats' totals in all parts of the country. The war in Iraq also enabled the Democrats to become the more realistic party. That is because they could acknowledge the evident deterioration of the situation there — a reality the White House looks delusional in denying.
The war also supplied what Democrats have been missing in many electoral cycles of the past 30 years — a sense of connection with the concerns of ordinary Americans.
But the Democrats also have to factor in the nature of their new and fragile majorities. As has been widely noted since Election Day, many of the newly minted Democrats in Congress are centrists — even conservatives — reminiscent of the party's broad national appeal in generations past. Whether in the Senate or the House, these newly elected members will not risk a vote that could be characterized as disloyal to troops on the firing line.
So we confront the latest renewal of the most common headline in American politics: Democrats Divided. More a coalition than a classic, disciplined power party, the Democrats will always be divided when it comes to the toughest decisions on national security. Especially when the decision they are faced with is shaped by a fait accompli forced on them by a wartime president, empowered by a use-of-force resolution passed by a previous Congress.
The use of such resolutions, in lieu of a constitutional declaration of war, has been at the root of U.S. overreach both in Vietnam and Iraq. In both cases, presidents were given special powers and freed of congressional restraint. The results have been disastrous. And so long as Congress cannot withstand the pressure to pass such carte blanche approvals-in-advance, we can expect this cycle to play itself out again.