- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 1, 2007

Georges Clemenceau famously observed that “war is too important to be left to the generals.” This well-known quotation isn’t exactly what he said, but it comes close and sounds better than his actual words. Unfortunately, in war — unlike reporting, editorializing or delivering political speeches — getting things exactly right matters a lot.

Congressional Democrats’ efforts to put their own stamp on the war in Iraq responds to a political instinct to do what sounds good rather than the military imperative of doing what is best calculated to work. House Democrats, under John Murtha’s guidance, pushed through a bill that threatens to do a great deal of damage to our war effort and to our security. Their colleagues in the Senate followed suit. Both efforts show Congress at its worst — giving far more weight to pork, pomp, and posturing than to our safety and constitutional traditions.

The essence of Clemenceau’s epigram was that, at bottom, war is not only about strategy and tactics. It is also about political goals and national values that transcend the special competence of generals. But not everything is for the politicians, much less for all politicians.

Some parts of the war effort — any war effort — lie squarely in Congress’ hands. Basic funding decisions, including funding for our military, are given to Congress by the Constitution. So is the authority to declare war, to authorize use of military force. Congress exercises these constitutional powers through its lawmaking function.

The constitutional and historical assignment of those functions to Congress reflects their compatibility with the nature of congressional action. They fit comfortably with public debate, deliberation and compromise — hallmarks of a large body of political representatives with differing constituencies, interests and objectives.

Not every function is equally suited to collective action by 535 individuals with diverse interests, strong views, and far greater facility at public speaking than at secrecy. You wouldn’t ask such a group to write a sonnet, nor to direct a war.

The conduct of war requires direction from a single authority capable of making decisions with speed, secrecy and flexibility. Changing circumstances on the ground don’t permit the luxury of extended debate. Military strategy doesn’t benefit from accommodation of different judgments informed by competing interests.

Abraham Lincoln wasn’t loath to replace generals who didn’t perform. He wasn’t afraid to override the authority of fighting men who wouldn’t fight. In that respect, he agreed with Clemenceau.

But Lincoln also recognized that the actual conduct of war had to rest in the hands of those closest to the situation and best trained to assess the right response. Most of the day-to-day decision-making in any military operation necessarily will be the province of generals, under the supervision of the President as Commander-in-Chief. In contrast to basic funding and war-declaring functions, oversight of actual combat is constitutionally, historically, and logically in the president’s — not Congress’ — domain.

Democrats in Congress, regrettably, seem more intent on scoring political points than on helping make our military efforts effective. Their Iraq resolution is a case in point. Democrats are angry that we are engaged in Iraq. They want our troops out. They campaigned in last fall’s congressional election on opposition to all things Republican, including the war. Their election in part reflects the fact that many Americans don’t understand why we’re in Iraq and don’t want us to continue the course we’re on.

The case for this war always rested on a complex set of observations about Saddam Hussein: his brutality, his aggression against neighbors, his support for terrorists in the Middle East, his ability to project aggression further or to provide more potent tools to others, the waning international will to continue efforts to contain him. One need only look at the congressional authorization for the use of force against Iraq to see the many strands of the argument.

Following our quick initial victory and slow, uneven, uncertain progress since then, Democrats and their allies in the media have succeeded in painting the case for war as entirely based on claims that Saddam possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMD). That belief was nearly universal among world leaders — not only the Clinton Administration and Bush Administration, but also Chirac’s France, Putin’s Russia, Schroeder’s Germany. If Saddam was not as close as some leaders — including the President — thought to having one type of WMD (nuclear weapons), that should not now make it seem that there was no case for the war.

Even those who on balance don’t think we should have invaded Iraq should start with the understanding that there is a reason to be there and much to be lost by leaving the wrong way.

Withdrawing before Iraq is stabilized almost certainly would encourage more aggression against America by terrorists seeing withdrawal as a victory. Democrats deny that, but many of them are afraid to do something that would make them responsible for any ill effects of a precipitous withdrawal. That, in part, is why House Democrats overwhelmingly rejected Nancy Pelosi’s choice of Murtha for majority leader.

But with Pelosi still giving Murtha the lead on war issues, House Democrats — and their Senate colleagues — are attempting exactly the sort of thing that should make every moderate Democrat, and every sensible American, cringe: micromanaging how we fight, with how many troops, over what time period. And they’re doing it in a way that provides minimum protection to our soldiers and maximum information to our foes.

Their vehicle, styled as a supplemental budget bill, is loaded with billions of extra dollars for “earmarks.” These are pet projects of Democrats whose votes were needed for the bill’s passage — a cricket eradication program for Harry Reid’s home state, extra money for spinach growers, strawberry farmers, peanut storage, and so much more. That’s just the sort of spending Democrats promised last fall to end.

But the bill goes well beyond funding decisions, mandating pre-announced timetables for withdrawal. The bill would limit our soldiers’ ability to align troop levels with needs, to assign command functions to fit the situation in the field, and to keep such decisions from the people we are fighting. A final version will face certain veto from the President, but the bill’s passage encourages those we’re fighting and frustrates our men and women in arms, while delaying much-needed support for our troops.

Our new military team in Iraq has asked for time to make a new policy work. Our representatives should respect that — and Democrat or Republican, they should hope it works. Both our safety and our constitutional system depend on it.

Ronald A. Cass is chairman of the Center for the Rule of Law, dean emeritus of Boston University School of Law and former commissioner and vice chairman of the U.S. International Trade Commission.

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