'Surge' Debate a Classic Test of Power of the Purse

Soldiers of the 82nd Airborne Division wait in line to board their plane at Pope Air Force Base. i i

hide captionSoldiers of the 82nd Airborne Division wait in line to board their plane at Pope Air Force Base at Fort Bragg, N.C. They were headed to Kuwait.

Logan Mock-Bunting/Getty Images
Soldiers of the 82nd Airborne Division wait in line to board their plane at Pope Air Force Base.

Soldiers of the 82nd Airborne Division wait in line to board their plane at Pope Air Force Base at Fort Bragg, N.C. They were headed to Kuwait.

Logan Mock-Bunting/Getty Images

It was 32 years ago this winter when a heavily Democratic Congress, elected in the Watergate year of 1974, ended a decade of acquiescence and said no to the Vietnam War.

By then, the bulk of U.S. forces had been withdrawn and the war was almost entirely in the hands of the Vietnamese.

But there were still many diplomats and other Americans in the city that was still known as Saigon as well as elsewhere in the country that was still known as South Vietnam. And there were still tens of thousands of Vietnamese who had risked their standing and their well-being to serve alongside the Americans.

Beyond all these lives, the fate of that country still bore enormous implications for the prestige of the United States. The human investment that had been made there in the 1960s and 1970s, along with the inestimable consequences back in the U.S., would make Vietnam the most compelling issue of the era for tens of millions of Americans — if not for the nation as a whole.

To this day, some supporters of that war effort say the Saigon government and its army might have held out if the Congress had honored the final appropriation request of President Gerald Ford that winter. Originally pegged at $1 billion, the request had been cut back to $700 million in hopes of winning approval. But by that time, the cause had been sullied. The fall of Richard Nixon in the Watergate trauma of 1973-74 had cost the war its last Oval Office champion. The nation eager to move beyond Watergate was even more eager to be done with Vietnam.

But Gerald Ford made one last valiant attempt to rally the nation around the defense of the Saigon government. He said that failure to defend that government would force the U.S. military to defend governments in neighboring Asian countries, and indeed throughout the world. It was a pitch borrowed from Nixon's own speeches defending the war, and indeed from those of Lyndon Johnson before him. By the time Ford was intoning these inherited arguments, they were worn down and shorn of their persuasiveness.

At no time in the three decades of ensuing history has an American president been in quite so similar a predicament. But that has changed in the past year. President Bush began 2006 with a plausible case to make about the emergent, plucky democracy in Iraq. Millions had defied violence to vote and a government was taking shape. But with the bombing of the Al Askari mosque in Samarra in February, the insurgency in Iraq took a more viciously sectarian turn. For the remainder ofn 2006, the situation "on the ground" continued to deteriorate, with sharp growth in the rate of casualties among U.S. troops and Iraqis alike.

So President Bush has told the nation he has a new direction in Iraq. It calls for an additional "surge" of as many as 20 thousand U.S. troops, apparently starting before the end of this month. The new strategy flies in the face of public opinion polls showing that less than 20 percent of the public supports increasing levels of U.S. commitment in Iraq.

Democrats who control Congress are expressing skepticism and some are talking about steps to limit the scope of Presidents proposed increase. But what can the Democrats really do about it?

For months, Democrats have promised increased oversight of the war in Iraq, saying they would require President Bush to justify his policies there. But at the same time, Democratic leaders have all but ruled out exercising their power of the purse to block funding for the war.

That reluctance is now being openly denounced by the more aggressive war critics in the House and Senate. In a speech he gave at the National Press Club on Jan. 8, Sen. Edward Kennedy said he and fellow Massachusetts Democrat Rep. Edward Markey would introduce legislation specifying "that no additional troops can be sent and no additional dollars can be spent" on what Kennedy characterized as an escalation in Iraq — "unless and until congress approves the president's plan."

Another prominent anti-war Democrat, Rep. John Murtha of Pennsylvania told The Wall Street Journal he is considering a similar course of action, possibly limiting the use of new funds for the deployment of Army troops in Iraq to a year. Murtha, who now chairs the powerful House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense, is in the ideal position to push or even to implement such a plan.

But for all this firebrand expression this week, the chances of the Democrats throttling the cash flow for this war remain slim to none. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada told reporters yesterday that Kennedy's proposal was an idea that will be looked at, but indicated the broader Democratic caucus in the Senate would prefer a bipartisan course of action.

"What we're going to work toward if the speech is as we think is going to be is a bipartisan statement on the president's escalation," Reid said. "We believe that there are a number of Republicans who will join with us to say no to escalation."

There are any number of Senate Republicans, including Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine and Gordon Smith of Oregon, who have expressed skepticism about a surge in troop levels. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell is not one of them. He says the president's plan will give the Iraqi government a chance to succeed, and he doubts Congress could or should use the purse strings to influence military policy.

"I think it's inappropriate for Congress to micromanage in effect the tactics in a military conflict," McConnell said. "I don't think Congress has the authority to do it, and I don't think it would be good at it. You can't run a war by a committee of 435 in the House and 100 in the Senate."

That is surely a widely held view. But in the wake of frustration and confusion on Iraq, the idea of the omnipotent Pentagon has been battered once again. In his interview with The Wall Street Journal, Murtha anticipated McConnell's statement, saying the Department of Defense needed "to be micromanaged."

Advocates note Congress has set caps on troop levels several times in recent conflicts, including in Vietnam and Lebanon.

In a conference call with reporters, Lawrence J. Korb of the left-leaning Center for American Progress, said Congress has enacted funding restrictions regarding U.S. troops in a long list of nations, among them Cambodia, Laos, South Vietnam, Nicaragua, Somalia, Rwanda and Bosnia. Korb, a former Assistant Secretary of Defense in the Reagan administration, said limiting troop levels was "a proper role for Congress to play" and given the election "something they should do."

But some Democrats with seniority and power remain wary about such an approach. Rep. David Obey of Wisconsin, who now chairs the full Appropriations Committee in the House, says it would be "complicated" to isolate funds needed for troops taking part in a surge in Iraq, especially if those troops are already inside the country.

Nonetheless, Obey is skeptical of the president's direction and his tendency to cling to policies that seem to have failed.

"We have been told initially that we would stand down as the Iraqis are standing up," Obey said, adding "now it sounds to me like were being told Americans will stand up as the Iraqis are standing up. That's a confusing difference to me."

Democrats officially begin their majority oversight of Iraq policy Thursday, when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates are scheduled to testify before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the House Armed Services Committee, respectively.

It will surely be a long, long day for all concerned.

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