- The Washington Times - Monday, March 26, 2007

I would have joined surge supporters in voting against the House supplemental appropriations bill because of the constraints it seeks to impose on whatever ability we may have to get to acceptable conditions in Iraq, especially the arbitrary imposition of a withdrawal timetable regardless of military needs.

The $28 billion in earmarked domestic spending measures the House Democratic leadership chose to lard on top of the $96 billion for military operations, a premium of nearly a third, served merely to turn a wrongheaded piece of legislation into a disgusting piece of legislation. President Bush was right to threaten to veto it.

The question is whether, from the point of view of increasing the chances of success of the war effort, any good can come out of the Democrats’ quasi-opposition. With regard to those pressing for immediate withdrawal, the answer is no: They prefer a frank acknowledgment of American defeat in a misbegotten cause. They aren’t interested in the possibility that Gen. David Petraeus may actually know how to prevail in a counterinsurgency. And they don’t care what happens in Iraq after we are gone. In the event of killing on a mass scale, they will blame George W. Bush personally.

As for those seeking to attach conditions, benchmarks and a timetable, they divide into two categories. In the first are the people pursuing as quick as possible an American withdrawal by tactical means. They are being realistic in acknowledging that an outright cutoff of funds for the war, exercise of Congress’s ultimate power of the purse, is not in the cards, and they are therefore trying to bring constantly increasing pressure to bear on the White House. Although there is substantial friction between this group and the “Come home, America” crowd, their disagreement is over means, not ends. They agree that we have lost and should leave.

But then there is the group that means business about the setting of benchmarks for the Iraqi government as the condition for a sustained American presence. This argument has been bubbling along among serious-minded Democrats for about two years now. In brief, it goes like this: The presence of the U.S. forces creates a moral hazard for the Iraqis. Because the Iraqi government thinks it can rely on U.S. troops to keep the country from blowing apart, Iraqis are able to defer the hard choices necessary to build up their own capacity to deal with the insurgency. This is true not only in terms of increasing the size and improving the effectiveness of Iraqi military and security forces, but also with regard to the wrenching choices that may be necessary to create political conditions conducive to an end to the violence and disorder.

In other words, until the Iraqis feel they have to step up and become masters of their own destiny, they are unlikely to do so. The only way the United States can encourage them is by devolving substantially more actual responsibility to them as quickly as possible. At the limit, only the prospect of U.S. withdrawal will force the Iraqis to act maximally in their own behalf. The prospect of withdrawal, paradoxically, creates the conditions in which an ongoing U.S. presence can be most effective.

Now, I don’t know if I buy this or not. The reasoning is, in certain respects, unimpeachably sound. The United States has had “free rider” issues from the point at which it began to supply security for others. The Soviet Union had a much smaller problem in this regard because it could, in effect, order the Warsaw Pact nations to deliver militarily. The United States had and has no similar power over democratic governments. Nor are we going to start treating Iraq as a province of our imperial authority.

The question is whether the failure of Iraqis to step up is the main cause of the Iraq problem or whether Iraqis simply lack the capacity to do so without catastrophic consequences. It may be that the catastrophic consequences are the only path to a capable Iraqi government. Is the price worth paying? Or is it better to tolerate the moral hazard while building capacity, now understood to include the U.S. taking action to provide real security? The point is that this is a serious question. And Congress may just be handing Mr. Bush a useful tool. If he can cite to Iraqis not only his personal commitment to them to see the counterinsurgency through but also his concern about mounting congressional pressure for withdrawal, he may be able to create the conditions in which the government lead by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is best incentivized to produce results. If the Iraqi prime minister doesn’t do what needs doing (and I don’t have a checklist, but others do), then declining support in Congress may limit Mr. Bush’s ability to persist.

There is precedent for the executive branch’s effective use of congressional pressure in pursuit of its foreign policy goals: China and Taiwan come to mind. It’s a dangerous game, but these are dangerous times for all concerned.

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