George W. Bush reportedly told Australia’s deputy prime minister that “we’re kicking ass” in Iraq, but the pithy tough talk may fit better with what the President is doing to the Democrats in Congress.

To cover their political beating, some Democratic operatives are advising the party’s leadership to claim a measure of victory when Bush and Gen. David Petraeus agree to make a symbolic troop cut – perhaps 5,000 – from the current levels of about 172,000.

“The challenge for us is whether we will be able to take ‘yes’ for an answer,” one leading (though unidentified) Democratic strategist told Washington Post columnist David Ignatius. This “smart Democrat strategy,” as described by the strategist, would be to argue that Bush’s actions are in line with what the Democrats want.

The strategist wrote down in Ignatius’s notebook a statement that Democratic leaders should give after Bush announces a symbolic cut in U.S. forces: “This is an important and historic step away from the status quo of more troops, more money, more time and more of the same. It is however the first step and only the first step.”

Ignatius, an influential Iraq War supporter over the past five years, endorses this view of the “smart strategy” as it applies to both modest troop “cuts” and the “soft partition” of Iraq, the brutal ethnic cleansing that is creating de facto sectarian enclaves, for which the Democrats also would claim credit.

“As the Democrat strategist suggests, it’s time to take yes for an answer,” Ignatius wrote in an article entitled “Can the Democrats Say Yes?” [Washington Post, Sept. 9, 2007]

But a Democratic “victory” declaration would not likely pass the smell test for the party’s anti-war base, which would view saying “yes” as not even a fig leaf, more like a tiny pasty trying to cover the Democrats’ nakedness.

After all, when the Democrats won control of Congress in November 2006, Bush had about 130,000 American troops in Iraq. The political momentum also was in favor of a significant withdrawal of U.S. forces in the near future.

Bush, however, went in the opposite direction. He purged internal dissidents who favored a drawdown of troops (including Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and top field commanders, Generals John Abizaid and George Casey) and replaced them with more compliant leadership (Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Gen. David Petraeus.)

Then, on Jan. 10, Bush announced the “surge” of U.S. troops, which has pushed the total U.S. force in Iraq up to about 172,000. Meanwhile, back in Washington, Bush and his Republican supporters beat back Democratic attempts to both oppose the escalation and impose timelines for withdrawal.

Now, Bush and Petraeus are indicating a willingness to trim troop levels by about 5,000 over the next few months, which would leave the numbers about 37,000 higher than they were when the Democrats rode popular opposition to the war to their narrow congressional majorities.

If that’s “victory,” it’s hard to envision how the Democrats would define “defeat.”

Votes Needed to Win

As part of their ongoing surrender (or “victory”), congressional Democratic leaders also continue to mislead the public about the number of votes needed to challenge Bush’s Iraq War policies.

Prominent Democrats, such as Sens. Hillary Clinton and Carl Levin, have argued that the party needs at least 60 votes in the Senate to overcome a Republican filibuster and 67 to defeat a presidential veto.

Since the Democrats control the Senate with only 51 votes and one of those is independent Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, a staunch neoconservative war supporter, the argument goes that the Democrats have no chance to prevail.

However, that’s not really true. Since Bush needs an affirmative vote to get another blank check on the Iraq War, Democrats could block approval with their own Senate filibuster, requiring only 41 votes.

If the Democrats and a few anti-war Republicans would show as much determination as Bush has, they could confront Bush with the choice of either making some meaningful concessions or leaving the troops in Iraq unfunded.

Instead, the Democrats have begun negotiations with Bush by declaring that in the end they will crumble and give Bush a blank check rather than risk a funding impasse. But that amounts to raising the white flag at the start of a battle.

If the Democrats could combine a majority in the House with 41 courageous members of the Senate, they could shift the political pressure back onto Bush. Either he would have to reach some compromise with Congress or he would be leaving the troops in the lurch.

But the goal of the Democratic leadership appears to be scoring a few rhetorical points, accepting defeat (albeit perhaps spun as some kind of “victory”), and then using the Iraq War as a campaign issue in 2008, rather than making a serious fight over bringing the troops home as quickly as possible.

Levin as Lincoln?

One of the key Democratic capitulators, Sen. Levin of Michigan, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has tried to gussy up the Democratic surrender by likening it to the position of Abraham Lincoln during the Mexican War, which was launched by President James Polk after a declaration of war by Congress in 1846.

“In his only term in Congress, Abraham Lincoln was an ardent opponent of the Mexican War,” including voting for an amendment that called the conflict “unnecessary and unconstitutionally begun by the President,” Levin wrote in a June 21 Washington Post op-ed entitled “Lincoln’s Example for Iraq.”

Yet, Levin noted, “when the question of funding for the troops fighting that war came, Lincoln voted their supplies without hesitation.” Levin said he had followed the Lincoln example by opposing Bush’s Iraq War resolution in 2002 but voting money for the troops as long as they remain in the field.

But Levin’s historical analogy is flawed. For one, Lincoln wasn’t in Congress when the war with Mexico was declared on May 13, 1846. Lincoln took his seat in the House of Representatives on Dec. 6, 1847.

By then, the war with Mexico was already won. The decisive battle of Chapultepec was fought almost three months earlier, on Sept. 12, 1847, and American forces entered Mexico City two days later. Though there was a delay in negotiating a final peace treaty due to the political chaos in the Mexican leadership, the war was effectively over.

So, Lincoln’s vote to send supplies to the U.S. expeditionary force was not a vote for continuing an indefinite war with Mexico; it was simply to support the troops while a final peace treaty was hammered out and then to bring the troops home.

The peace treaty was signed in the village of Guadalupe Hidalgo, near Mexico City, on Feb. 2, 1848, formally ending a conflict that had lasted less than two years. By contrast, the Iraq War has dragged on for more than four years with no end in sight.

In other words, Levin is historically mistaken when he uses Lincoln’s stand on the Mexican War to justify his own on the Iraq War.

While Levin says he is ready to give Bush a blank check as long as the Iraq War continues, there is no reason to believe that Congressman Lincoln would have done the same for President Polk if that Commander in Chief had ordered U.S. troops to conduct a bloody, indefinite occupation of the Mexican countryside.

A Strategy for Defeat

Having ruled out a showdown with Bush over war funding, Levin suggests that the only viable course for ending the Iraq War is to convince enough Republicans to join Democrats in setting a date for withdrawing and repositioning U.S. forces.

“By setting a policy that begins with putting into law a timetable for starting a troop reduction, rather than trying to stop funding, we offer the best chance for stabilizing a country that we invaded while also sending the message to our troops that, even though we oppose the President’s policy, we are united behind them,” Levin wrote.

Levin also noted that Senate support for a withdrawal timetable “has grown steadily,” attracting 51 votes – including two Republicans – in April 2007, rising from 39 votes in June 2006 and 48 in March 2007.

By contrast, he observed, that in May, only 29 senators – all Democrats – voted against giving Bush the $100 billion that he demanded with virtually no strings attached. Levin joined the majority in voting the blank check, which many rank-and-file Democrats viewed as a betrayal and a capitulation.

Referring to the 29 no votes, Levin added, “that’s a long way from the 60 votes needed to end a filibuster or the 67 needed to override a veto.”

Levin appears to have unfurled what looks like a perpetual white flag of surrender. In his Post op-ed, he declared that the only option he sees is to wait until enough Republicans abandon Bush and join in overriding the President’s veto of another timetable bill.

“Until that day, we will continue to fund the troops, following the example so wisely set by Abraham Lincoln 160 years ago,” Levin wrote.

But – even beyond his faulty historical analogy – Levin’s logic has turned out to be wrong in two ways:

Not only could Democrats actually block the next Iraq War blank check with 41 votes, but the hoped-for crumbling of Republican war support has not materialized. Indeed, after the August recess, it appears the cracks are appearing more in Democratic than Republican ranks.

Which leaves the Democrats two choices: either escalate the legislative battle by using their own filibuster if needed or adopt the “smart strategy” as outlined in Ignatius’s column – say “yes” to Bush, let the war rage on, and pretend that Bush is doing what the Democrats always wanted.

Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there.

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