- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 4, 2007

It used to be said that American politics ended “at the water’s edge.” Politicians and parties would fight tooth and nail over domestic issues, but when the president (as commander in chief) deployed troops overseas, Congress (as the branch in charge of spending) would make sure those forces had the resources to win. Unfortunately, that all-together-now spirit is dissolving.

In February, the House of Representatives passed a nonbinding resolution opposing the Bush administration’s surge strategy for Iraq. Being “nonbinding,” the vote was essentially meaningless. Still, it was only the first skirmish in what likely will prove a bitter struggle over the future of U.S. policy in Iraq.

House Democrats engineered a 246-182 vote on the antisurge resolution by crafting a resolution that enabled House members to take a cost-free symbolic stand against President Bush’s “new way forward” without taking responsibility for proposing a coherent alternative policy. In part this is because Mr. Bush’s congressional critics could not agree on an alternative policy, so they voted to support a lowest-common-denominator criticism of current policy. One could almost call it the “irresolution resolution.”

Alone, such a vote would stand as an unusual — and heavily hedged — wartime rebuke to the nation’s commander in chief. But there’s more to come from this Congress. Pressured by supporters in the ultraliberal “netroots,” congressional Democrats have taken only the first step in what will be a protracted campaign to hamstring Bush’s Middle East policy and undermine his constitutional authority.

At stake is not only the fate of Iraq but also the outcome of the war against terrorism and of U.S. efforts to contain Iran, as well as the ability of future American presidents to fight and win wars.

House Democrats already have signaled their intent to escalate efforts to block the administration’s plans in Iraq by restricting the funds and resources needed to implement its new counterinsurgency strategy.

Rep. John Murtha, Pennsylvania Democrat and chairman of the House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee, says he will seek to attach conditions to the $93 billion supplemental defense appropriation due to be voted on this month. Mr. Murtha’s restrictions would make it impossible for the administration to follow through with its promising new strategy.

Mr. Murtha intends to restrict deployment of military units to Iraq by stipulating that they must meet certain requirements for equipment, training and time between deployments. By cynically masking his proposals as efforts to enhance military readiness, Mr. Murtha seeks to sabotage the surge strategy.

Democrats hope to sidestep the charge they are undermining the troops during wartime by restricting military management decisions rather than directly cutting funds to support operations. But blocking reinforcements could put the lives of the troops already deployed in Iraq at greater risk. And those troops now in Iraq likely will face extended war-zone service if Congress delays deployment of their replacements. So much for supporting the troops.

This kind of congressional micromanagement not only undermines the flexibility of the forces available to military commanders and reduces the overall effectiveness of the war effort, it impinges on the president’s powers as commander in chief. Such legislation could provoke a constitutional clash over presidential war powers. What happened to politics stopping at the water’s edge?

If it undercuts the administration’s Iraq policy, Congress risks fatally undermining the fledgling Iraqi government, allowing that nation to slide into a much bloodier sectarian civil war and handing Iran, Syria and al Qaeda a major victory.

If Congress insists on choking off the troop reinforcements and resources needed to carry out the Bush administration’s Iraq strategy, it should at least assume responsibility for the disaster likely to result.

A rush-to-exit strategy would risk abandoning Iraqis to a humanitarian catastrophe far worse than the murderous ethnic cleansing in the Balkans that led to two U.S. interventions there in the 1990s. It likely would eclipse even the tragic bloodletting in Darfur today.

Pulling the plug on the war in Iraq also would help create the conditions for many future wars. A defeat in Iraq would increase the likely need for future U.S. military interventions to combat a resurgent al Qaeda, contain spillover effects that threaten Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Jordan, and confront an increasingly aggressive Iran.

For generations, Americans have understood that political leaders — and their parties — don’t fight wars. Countries fight wars. And, to paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, a country divided against itself isn’t likely to win its wars.

James Phillips is research fellow for Middle Eastern affairs at the Heritage Foundation.

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