- The Washington Times - Monday, March 26, 2007

Congress has voted to condition funding for America’s troops on forcing the president — and America’s military — to accept an arbitrary date for withdrawal of American troops from a theater of war. That decision is unprecedented and ill-advised. Democrats should reverse course, but Republicans should take no comfort in this. Iraq’s endgame lies with tacking into the storm, not running from the wind.

Iraq’s current instability represents an international hurricane. The hurricane has potential for wreaking geopolitical havoc well beyond Iraq. The Democratic majority in Congress is a majority because the American people see this storm and cannot foresee its conclusion, despite earnestly trying for four years.

Daily casualties remind Americans the war seems perpetual. To some, this is acceptable; to most, it is not. The president and his current team have, by leaning blithely on Americans’ native will to win and a president’s constitutional prerogatives, facilitated this misperception.

This war cannot be perpetual. Beyond the casualty count, which remains objectively low but frustratingly high for progress recorded, the U.S. Treasury cannot continue current funding of this engagement. Operational tempo, manning and equipment requirements, armament depletion, lag-times in training, accelerated redeployment and basic readiness issues agree: This war is not indefinitely sustainable.

But that realization is not the same as voting to condition funding for America’s troops in war on an arbitrary date for withdrawal of those troops from a theater of war. The distinction is critical.

Understanding the distinction points to a different resolution in Iraq — one that is more realistic, politically sound, historically grounded and aligned with national security. Forgoing the desire to heap blame, Democrats in Congress must strive to separate politics and war fighting. Great leadership requires reflecting on history.

President James Madison and the Congress that presided over wartime spending during the War of 1812 (which lasted until the armistice in 1815) did not try to tell military commanders William Henry Harrison or Andrew Jackson when to conclude battle, despite major defeats early in the war. America’s commitment to war and peace produced stability, if not outright victory.

Permitting military leaders the latitude to prevail produced victories at Tippecanoe and the Battle of New Orleans. What would the British have done if Congress had declared, in 1813, a withdrawal and termination of funding for war efforts beginning in the fall of 1814? They would have fought more ferociously — and likely won.

What if Congress had chosen not to honor Abraham Lincoln’s request for unburdened funding at the apex of our Civil War, instead declaring in 1862 that the Union would no longer fight after the spring of 1863. The Union’s back was against the wall. No one in Congress foresaw any turnaround. No one imagined the Union successes at either Gettysburg or Vicksburg in July 1863.

What if President Woodrow Wilson, in addressing the 65th Congress in April 1917, had received only funding conditioned on withdrawal from Europe by a date certain? Even without television, such news would have mightily heartened the kaiser.

Would we admire Franklin D. Roosevelt — and the Congress that stood by America’s troops — if Congress had tied the hands of Dwight Eisenhower, Omar Bradley or George Patton? For that matter, would there have been anything to admire?

The bedrock is this: America’s military leaders require uncompromising congressional support to succeed. There must be a will to win, if any conflict is to be concluded on terms favorable to America. Such support is transparently absent when funds are conditioned on an arbitrary timeline that interferes with field commanders’ ability to fight and win the war for which the money is being provided.

In a nutshell, it is no less offensive in a democracy to have Congress make military decisions than to have military leaders make political decisions. America’s military respects our civilian leadership. Our civilian leadership needs to respect the military’s flag officers dedicated to ending this conflict on terms favorable to America.

America’s commanding general in Iraq, Gen. Dave Petraeus, deserves better. He deserves a commitment that allows him to bring this ship into port. There is nothing fair about placing him astride Iraq’s Gordian knot, commissioning him to untie it, and then undercutting him with a withdrawal date.

So let’s cut to the quick. If not reversed, conditioning troop support on an arbitrary withdrawal date will produce a shortage of supplies — and Congress will be blamed. If not reversed, Middle Eastern terrorists will celebrate — and Congress will be blamed for that. Without basic security in Iraq, terrorist events in the West will rise — and Congress will be blamed. And when the first suicide bomb goes off in Washington, Congress — not the president — will be blamed for that. More sobering still, what will that matter, against what might have been?

A favorable outcome in Iraq is possible, but only with reduced expectations, uncompromising support for our military leadership, and no congressional edicts on arbitrary withdrawal. Patience, pain and sagacity must trump political gain and congressional mendacity. Running from the wind will never resolve this conflict.

British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain felt good in 1938 when he declared “peace in our time.” But in 1939, when Germany exploded into Poland, his strategy of running from the wind proved disastrous. Today, most voters want resolution, but they do not want cut-and-run withdrawal. Voters prefer sustainable answers.

That means reversing withdrawal, funding the troops, insisting on Trumanlike oversight and demanding benchmarks toward stabilization. Done right, the Democrats will get full credit for putting this train on the track. Let stand, they will be rightly blamed for boldly embracing defeat.

At the end of the day, we are at the edge of a hurricane. That said, leaving the ship’s wheelhouse in a storm is never acceptable.

Robert B. Charles, who helped train Iraqi police as assistant secretary of state for international narcotics and law enforcement affairs (2002-2005), is president of the Charles Group LLC, Washington D.C.

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